Vancouver-Whistler Scores the 2010 Winter Games

IT WAS A WEIRD first reaction.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 14, 2003

Vancouver-Whistler Scores the 2010 Winter Games

IT WAS A WEIRD first reaction. In the jammed atrium lobby of the vast Prague Hilton, where hundreds of Koreans, clusters of disconsolate Austrians and a handful of hopeful Canadians had gathered to watch the announcement of the host city of the 2010 Winter Games, the first cheer went up from the Koreans. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge hadn't even finished uttering "awarded to the city of Vancouver" when their ear-splitting celebrations began. Inside the hall where Rogge was speaking, the victors themselves were slow off the mark. They'd been rigid with anxiety - earlier in the day it appeared VANCOUVER-WHISTLER, the favourite, might be overtaken by the long-shot bid for Pyeongchang. Salzburg had stunningly been eliminated, prompting floods of tears from startled supporters. The most composed members of Canada's presentation team were the former athletes, people who know about pressure, but even they showed the strain. "It was so close," said bid member Catriona Le May Doan, the recently retired speed skater. "We had a great bid, but the vote process seemed to go on so long. We were very nervous."

After a couple of seconds, it sunk in and there was pandemonium in the Canadian camp - tears, hugs, screams. "We've won the first gold medal of the 2010 Winter Games," exulted B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, "and it feels great." Later, when the documents had been signed and all requirements of the IOC had been fulfilled, the Canadians hosted a great party, Prague being a particularly great place to party. The wild and crazy Czechs are said to consume more beer per capita than anyone else on the planet, but on the warm summer night of July 2, they got serious competition from some crazy Canucks. The red-clad revellers started at a patio bar overlooking the Vltava River and the historic Charles Bridge at midday. Unquenched, they proceeded to the post-vote reception in the magnificent Municipal House, where the crisp pilsner helped to wash down the artery-clogging buffet fare (my kingdom for some lettuce). In the wee hours, partiers stumbled back to their hotels, unused to the uneven cobblestones of the old city's streets.

It was good fun, and well-earned. Since Calgary was the host in 1988, Canada has mounted two bids for the Summer Games in Toronto (1996 and 2008) and one for the Winter Games in Quebec City (2002), and though technically sound, those proposals lost for a number of reasons, among them bribery (Salt Lake City in 2002) and geopolitical priorities (Beijing in 2008). The 2010 competition, finally, was seen as Canada's to lose. The IOC's evaluation commission rated Vancouver-Whistler's facilities and logistics the best of the three, and more important, the choice was geographically expedient. The 2006 Winter Games are in Europe, the 2008 Summer Games are in Asia, so it made sense, especially to U.S. TV interests whose millions underwrite the Olympic movement, to return to the ratings-friendly time zones of North America in 2010.

But Prague, the gorgeous backdrop for so many spy tales, was the scene of some juicy Olympic intrigue. In the last two hours before the final ballot was announced, the English-language Korea Times mistakenly posted a pre-written story on its Web site, saying Pyeongchang had won. Conspiracy theorists immediately concluded the fix was in. It wasn't, of course, but it's true that backroom IOC manoeuvring nearly did in Vancouver and was partly the reason for Salzburg, boasting Kitzbühel and The Sound of Music, getting dumped on the first ballot by finishing last. Many European delegates hoping to get the next Summer Games (London, Paris, Madrid and Moscow are all contending) reportedly voted for Vancouver because they felt they had a better shot at 2012 if a non-European city hosted in 2010.

The Koreans, led by controversial IOC veteran Kim Un-Yong - he ran against Rogge for president even after being implicated in the Salt Lake City bribery scandal - overtook the Austrians and scared the Canadians because they simply outcampaigned the others. They targeted disgruntled Asian, South American and African members - who signalled their unhappiness with the Eurocentric leadership of the IOC. "Those delegates," explained Canadian delegate Dick Pound, "made that point very clearly in the vote today." Asked about the forces at play in the balloting, Rogge ducked: "I am not an expert in explaining votes. I come from sport and the only thing that counts is what's on the scoreboard. It's how many goals you score, not how you score them."

Despite their victory, a few Canadian officials were conspicuously restrained during the late-night celebrations. Bid vice-president of development Terry Wright and chief financial officer John McLaughlin had other things on their minds. They're leading a transition team that's dissolving the bid group and laying the groundwork for the larger organizing committee that will spend the next 6 ½ years preparing for and running the Games. Sitting in his hotel room as others were flying home, McLaughlin prepped for meetings with Olympic officials to discuss what happens next. "The first thing is that we'll wind up the bid corporation - pay all the bills and present our final financial statement to the IOC," he explained.

This fall, when the new organizing committee gets its board of directors - various constituents, from the Canadian Olympic Committee to the provincial and federal governments, get to appoint their own people - its first job will be to hire a chief executive who in turn will, as bid chairman Jack Poole said, hire staff "one at a time." Poole, a retired real estate developer, has been touted as a possible CEO candidate, but at 70 he may choose to watch the Games rather than run them. In the initial stages, the CEO will work with a comparatively small staff. McLaughlin suggests the committee will have only about 25 full-timers one year from now, 100 by 2006, and 1,200 permanent and 3,400 short-contract employees by 2010. Construction on competition venues will start soon so that they can be used by athletes for training and competitions, helping operators work out any kinks.

The costs are extraordinary. The three cities competing for the multicoloured rings in Prague collectively spent nearly $140 million on their bids. The B.C. group estimates it will earn enough from ticket sales, TV rights and sponsorships to cover the $1.3-billion cost of staging the Games. But that figure doesn't include hundreds of millions for civic projects that are essential to the Games' success, such as updating the Vancouver trade and convention centre and expanding the rapid transit system. Various levels of government have promised tax dollars to underwrite those expenses. "The Games will be fully funded and guaranteed by Canadian governments," Jean Chrétien assured delegates during the official Vancouver-Whistler presentation.

Based on other countries' experiences, the excitement of getting the Games may soon wear off. There are usually bungles along the way, even as social activists challenge the use of tax dollars to underwrite a 17-day athletic event at a time when health care and public education are desperate for funds. But there's no denying Vancouver's accomplishment. The competition for OLYMPIC GAMES is fierce: in addition to the European capitals, for instance, New York is in the running for in 2012. The Olympics have become the biggest prize not only in sport, but in civic renovation. The Games bring the attention of the world and, if things go well, enormous prestige and spinoff economic benefits. And in the process of getting Games-ready, communities make important infrastructure improvements - B.C., for instance, will get a safer highway from Vancouver to Whistler out of the 2010 deal.

Canadian athletes hope for a payoff, too. With no comprehensive national policy, and with funding slashed, sport has suffered in Canada over the past decade. Officials and athletes claim Canada is sending a team to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens that hasn't had the coaching, training and international experience to properly compete with the world's best. The 2010 Games are an incentive to reverse Canada's decline - no one on the bid team wants to repeat 1976 and 1988, when Canada suffered the embarrassment of not winning a single gold medal on home soil. In Prague, bid member Wayne Gretzky addressed that concern, promising, "We will win a gold in 2010." But Charmaine Crooks, who competed for Canada in four Olympics, says athletes can't wait six years for help. "They need to know now that they have the funding they need to compete," Crooks said. "We have to renew our commitment to sport, and winning these Games gives us the chance to do that."

In the immediate aftermath of victory, though, there was joy, and relief. "I feel as if I just got a lot younger," said a wrung-out John Furlong, the bid president. Years of drafting plans, strong-arming politicians for support and touting Vancouver-Whistler to inscrutable Olympic officials around the world were all on the line on one scary day. And the British Columbians employed a risky strategy, maintaining a low-pressure approach to wooing voters and offering a low-key presentation to IOC delegates on the final morning. The Koreans, working the hotel corridors, were clearly closing the gap on the favourites, and that left an achingly long wait until the announcement of second-ballot results. But the B.C. strategy prevailed, and Crooks, both an IOC member and a Vancouver bid delegate, said she drew on her athletic career for resolve. "When you're in a race like this, with that kind of competition," said the former middle-distance runner, "you have to go right down to the wire."

At the after-party, the hard-working athlete trio of Crooks, Le May Doan and former World Cup ski champion Steve Podborski signed autographs and posed for pictures. Pound turned up with a couple of IOC members, including Austin Sealy from Barbados, a long-time proponent of the Vancouver bid. The pols - Premier Campbell and the mayors, Larry Campbell and Hugh O'Reilly of Vancouver and Whistler, respectively - pressed some flesh. Even Chrétien, 69 and suffering from jet lag, made an appearance. He waded energetically into the crowd, shaking hands and slapping backs, and he took the stage to offer a brief speech. "In 2003," he concluded, "we have had two Canada Days - yesterday and today." The loudly appreciative crowd loved it and cheered. As Chrétien stepped down off the podium, someone hollered, "Let's singO Canada!" And sweetly, on a hot night in Prague, that's just what everyone did.

Maclean's July 14, 2003