Sunday, August 2, 2009

Fast Track to the Winter Olympics

The six-month countdown to the 2010 Winter Olympics begins this month - Aug. 12, to be exact - and the Games, the first ones planned for Canada's west coast, are on the fast track to success.

I met with a phalanx of Canadian tourism media relations people last week, to get the skinny on the Olympic Games, whiuch begin Feb. 12, 2010, and the ParaOlympic Games, which start exactly a month later, on March 12.

And while the half-dozen public relations people who joined me at breakfast in San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel were understandably and necessarily promotional, they have reason to be confident that the Games - to be held in the seaside city of Vancouver and the mountain resort redoubt of Whister, British Columbia, are on the fast-track.

For one thing, as Whistler's delightfully named Breton Murphy pointed out, the sporting venues have been finished for two years and tested in high-level international competitions ahead of the Games. Unlike the near-improvisational Games in Athens, these Olympics are being planned to a fair thee well, with preparations running ahead of schedule.

Tickets for most events are still available, I was told.

Americans must buy Olympics ducats through, the same California company that sold tickets to the Summer Olympics in Beijing last year. Some events go for just a few bucks, but tickets to the opening ceremony - to be held indoors for the first time, in Vancouver's BC Place complex - can cost several hundred dollars each. Ditto for the men's hockey games, showcasing stars from the National Hockey League, and guaranteed to drive hockey-mad Canadians into a tizzy.

The city is certain be crowded, so travelers hoping to stay in or conveniently near Vancouver should book their lodging early. The Web site for that is In anticipation, Vancouver has seen a spate of hotel openings, starting with the stylish boutique property Hotel Loden last October and continuing in January of this year with the spectacular new highrise Shangri-la Hotel, which occupies the first 15 floors of the tallest building in town.

Major infrastructure projects - certain to be legacies of the Games for decades to come - are running right on schedule, the visiting tourism sextet told me. The extension of Vancouver's SkyTrain is expected to open in September, providing a long-needed rail link from Vancouver International Airport to downtown (estimated travel time: 25 minutes). The widening of Highway 99, the main road that links Vancouver and Whistler and runs through spectacular mountain landscapes, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Other legacies of the Games include the Olympic Villages in both Vancouver and Whistler, which will become housing after the cheering has faded. In Whistler, where there is a housing shortage, the athletes' village will be turned into affordable housing. The central city village in Vancouver where other athletes will stay is environmentally themed, with the whole neighborhood being considered for LEEDS certification - that's the 'green' credential to have in the construction industry, explained Tourism Vancouver's Emily Armstrong (no relation to yours truly).

Armstrong, BC Tourism's Mika Ryan and other members of their team attended the Games in Beijing last summer, to help them prep for these Games, and their excitement was clear to see.

Not all Olympics have come off well, at least away from the sporting venues - witness Atlanta's shaky performance in 1996. But when the Games are carefully and sensitively done, as they were in Los Angeles in 1984 and Sydney in 2000, they bequeath physical upgrades and an emotional charge to the host city and nation that can last a long, long time.

We won't know for sure how successful these Games will be until 2010 is history. But based on the organizers' track record so far, these Games - the first in Canada since the Calgary Winter Games of 1988 - have every chance of scoring gold.

Let the countdown begin.

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