After a Winter Olympics where nordic skiing took center stage, Whistler Olympic Park (WOP), 77 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia, faces the future with optimism, but with plans that are still murky.
Cleaning up the detritus of the 2010 Games, including grandstands, transformers, cameras and approximately 150 kilometers of fiber optic cable, WOP is preparing for life after the Olympics. Cushioned with government funding, WOP is developing plans to transform itself into a major tourist destination and training center.
Like Lake Placid’s Mount Van Hoevenberg, WOP is part of an umbrella organization that manages other legacy venues from the 2010 Winter Olympics. But unlike Mount Van Hoevenberg, or Utah’s Soldier Hollow, WOP is a beneficiary of a trust fund that will help pay operating expenses for the near- or medium-term future.
As the venue for cross-country, nordic combined, biathlon and ski jumping at the 2010 Winter Olympics, WOP hosted fully one-third of all the events at the Games. Last February, billions of TV viewers tuned in to watch top athletes ski at one of the world’s first “green” cross-country venues.
Situated to minimize disturbance of old-growth forest and wetlands, WOP shoehorned 14 kilometers of cross-country and biathlon trails, three technical buildings and an 11,000-square-foot ski lodge into a single square kilometer. Three technical buildings went up 400 meters apart. The lodge is built to LEED Silver Certification for green buildings. The square kilometer is a thirty percent smaller footprint than originally designed.
Forty kilometers of additional trails link to the 14 kilometers of race trails used for the Games, with six kilometers lighted for night skiing. In addition, WOP’s trail system connects with neighboring Callaghan Country’s 40 kilometers of trails, making for a nearly 100-kilometer network available to skiers.
A Legacy in Mind
On June 1, 2010, Whistler 2010 Sport Legacies (WSL), a not-for-profit organization, took over management of WOP from the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). WSL also operates the Whistler Sliding Centre, which hosted luge, bobsled and skeleton, as well as the Whistler Athlete Centre, which offers housing and strength and conditioning facilities to developing athletes training in the Whistler area.
“Legacy programming was going on since the day VANOC started,” said Georgia Manhard, a member of Cross Country British Columbia’s board of directors. She said that VANOC was already planning for the post-Olympic future even as it developed its bid for the 2010 Games.
The Whistler venues are funded in part by the 2010 Games Operating Trust (GOT), a second non-profit that was founded shortly after Vancouver won the right to host the 2010 Olympics. The Canadian federal government and the B.C. provincial government each contributed $55 million Canadian to the trust as seed money, which in turn disbursed funding to the venues in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
But WSL isn’t the trust’s only beneficiary. According to Chairman James Bruce, GOT also supports the Olympic speed skating oval in Richmond: 80 percent of the trust’s principal is split evenly between supporting WSL and the speed skating arena. Money from the remaining 20 percent is held aside as a contingency fund.
Each year, Bruce said, GOT distributes up to five percent of the average three-year balance of the fund to its two beneficiaries. Like the larger economy, the trust lost money in the stock market in calendar year 2008, but it realized an approximately 14 percent return on investments in 2009. Bruce said that it was reasonable to expect a positive return on the trust’s investments over the long term.
Keith Bennett, WSL’s president and CEO, said that it’s “difficult to say right now” what proportion of the nordic center’s operating budget will come from ticket sales, and what proportion will come from GOT funding. But his goal is to generate 50 percent of WOP’s revenue from ticket sales, equipment rentals, and food service.
According to Bennett, WOP had approximately 40,000 visitors in the winter of 2008-2009, the year preceding the Games. That figure, though, included elite athletes who arrived to participate in pre-Olympic events in all the disciplines: cross-country, biathlon, jumping and nordic combined. For the coming winter, Bennett is planning on 25,000 visitors, with a goal of 50,000 by 2014; he said the organization would target “new Canadians” and youth.
Bennett’s numbers contrast markedly with post-Olympic tourism numbers projected in the planning stages for the Olympics. In an article published on the
website XCOttawa.com in 2004, Tom McCarthy noted that the pre-Games master plan called for 60,000 visitors to WOP within three years of the Olympics, growing to 75,000 by 2015.
Bennett acknowledged the discrepancy, but stressed that he wanted to develop 50,000 “paying skier visits,” at $20 per person, each winter. He distinguished between paid visits and visits by “carded athletes”: Canadian national team, junior national team and development team athletes aren’t charged for trail passes. With virtually no publicity, Bennett added, WOP has already attracted 5,000 to 6,000 visitors this summer.
By comparison, according to information obtained by FasterSkier, approximately 40,000 skiers visited Sovereign Lake last winter, another cross-country area in British Columbia. In the eastern U.S., according to the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority’s just-released annual report, Lake Placid’s Mount van Hoevenberg attracted 30,000 skiers in 2009-2010. According to the document, that was an all-time record for attendance.
As part of its effort to increase visits to the Callaghan Valley, WSL has three areas of focus: attracting aspiring elite athletes, recruiting new people to the sport of cross-country skiing, and reaching out to area clubs.
“We see [the clubs] as a really important part of delivering nordic skiing to the community,” said John Heilig, WOP’s manager of nordic sport.
WSL is negotiating with the province of British Columbia to modify the terms of its lease, in order to build cabins for some of the clubs—especially those that come from outside Whistler.
Based at Cypress Bowl, on the outskirts of Vancouver, Hollyburn Jackrabbit Ski Club runs youth programs for everyone from five-year-old beginners through aspiring junior racers. While Cypress is close to most members, club president Dirk Rohde said that anyone involved in Hollyburn’s race program skis at Callaghan Valley. “It’s a couple-hour drive, but the training is worth it,” he said.
Hollyburn organizes one or two races each season at Callaghan Valley. “They have facilities and equipment to run an event properly,” Rohde said. Callaghan’s venue is especially suited to bigger races, Rohde added—those at the regional level or above. He noting, in contrast, that Cypress Bowl used a makeshift stadium—often a tent or an awning would suffice as the technical building.
WOP only charges a nominal fee for clubs to host events, and the venue also retained a number of wax trailers from the Olympics that it makes available. However, club members do not receive discounts on trail passes.
A Magnet for Development
Based in Whistler, the Callaghan Valley Training Centre (CVTC) is one of Canada’s national athlete development programs. In the scheme of Cross Country Canada (the country’s governing body for cross-country skiing), CVTC’s mission is to prepare local and regional juniors for national-level competition.
Chris Manhard, CVTC’s head coach, said that WSL “have been exceptional” in their support of his organization. The training center’s seven skiers lodge in the Whistler Athlete Center for a nominal fee. And whenever possible, Manhard said, WSL hires athletes for part-time positions, to help them defray training expenses.
WOP is also continuing an outreach program that focuses on school groups from local areas. A supplier provided WOP with rental equipment—skis, poles and boots—with the proviso that the gear would be used in such an initiative.
“We’re trying to engage all the local communities,” Heilig said. He specified the Sea-to-Sky corridor as a target, which encompasses the towns of Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler, but Heilig also said that groups have come from as far away as Vancouver.
WOP charges a nominal fee to offset the costs: $12 Canadian covers equipment rental, a lesson and a trail pass. In the winter of 2008-2009, the program saw 62 percent growth over the previous winter, with 1,762 kids participating. (Figures weren’t available for the ’09-’10 season.)
In addition to their own outreach effort, WOP is also signed on with the Canadian Ski Council’s (CSC’s) SnowPass program. After registering through the CSC website, any child in grades four and five is eligible for three free trail passes at WOP.
Each program is a piece of the puzzle. As Bennett acknowledged, WOP “will have to develop skier visits that don’t exist right now. Part of our job is to cultivate that.”