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Vancouver gets ready for big Olympic party



Ready for takeoff: Two Swiss ski jumpers, Simon Ammann and Andreas Küttel, hope to sail to gold off these ramps in Whistler

Ready for takeoff: Two Swiss ski jumpers, Simon Ammann and Andreas Küttel, hope to sail to gold off these ramps in Whistler

Estimates say three billion people will watch the 2010 Winter Games and no doubt many will focus on events where the Swiss have a shot at the gold.

If history serves as any guide, the Swiss will be a force to contend with in skiing and bobsled events, where over the years the country’s athletes have amassed a respectable 83 medals.

"The Swiss are undoubtedly fantastic sliders," said Chris Brumwell, a spokesman with the Vancouver Organizing Committee (Vanoc). "I think they’ll certainly find the venues of exceptional quality."

This is the first time in the history of the Games that two areas have been awarded Olympic designation. Unlike in 2002, when Salt Lake City hosted the Games and Park City was considered a venue, this time both Vancouver and Whistler are recognised as official hosts.

Together they will welcome a combined 250,000 people expected to invade the region during the 17-day Olympics. Swiss-friendly audiences may want to turn their attention to Whistler, where more than half of the events will unfold, including the ski and bobsled contests.

Just about all of the venues have been completed for nearly 18 months and are currently closed to the public for security reasons. Vanoc said about 1.6 million tickets are available for all of the events, with prices ranging from 25 Canadian dollars (SFr27.71) to $1,100 for prime seating at the opening ceremonies.

"We are getting ready for the biggest party we’ve ever hosted," said Breton Murphy, a spokesman from Tourism Whistler. "The table is set."

Gold rush

Just to overstate the obvious: Swiss Olympic confirms that alpine skiing events are the most successful disciplines for the Swiss. All told the Swiss alpine ski team has collected 53 medals at the Winter Games, including 16 gold, 19 silver and 18 bronze.

For speed specialists like Didier Cuche and Didier Defago, the downhill contest will take place on the Dave Murray course that spills into the Whistler Creekside finish area at the Whistler-Blackcomb resort, about 2.5 hours north of Vancouver. There, grandstands and a giant “jumbotron” screen will afford views of the action.

"It’s a very technical course," said Jessie Pendygrasse, a mountain host who took swissinfo.ch on a practice run down much of the route. "There are many places where the skiers will come screaming by and then have to negotiate a steep turn or compression."

All in all the course drops more than one vertical kilometre over 3.1km in length and features steep pitches like the Weasel, Funnel and Afterburner, where skiers will accelerate in a tight tuck to terrifying speeds. An advanced recreational skier can hardly imagine blasting down these nearly 40-degree pitches without making turns to lose some speed.

For the women the run isn’t any less forgiving. Although slightly shorter, the slope, which will also host the slalom, giant slalom and super giant slalom events, features equally technical sections: sharp turns, blind rollers, frighteningly steep pitches. Both men and women must sail over a big jump called Hot Air right before the finish in what is sure to be a crowd pleaser for the 7,700 live spectators.

The fast track

Just a few hundred metres away sits the Whistler Sliding Centre, a 110 million Canadian dollar facility where the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events will take place. Swiss Olympic says its athletes have had the second biggest medal haul in the bob, with 30 earned at the Winter Games in all. Nine of them have been gold, with the rest split almost equally between silver and bronze.

During the Torino Olympics in 2006, the Swiss took second in the bob medal count, with two bronze to Germany’s three gold.

"It is the most technical, steepest and fastest track of its kind in the world," said Murphy, who took a practice run down the course. "Everyone wants to break the 150km/h threshold. They broke that during training runs. It’s very intense."

The course, which features 16 turns down a concrete, refrigerated track, spills for about 1.4km through a forest. It is one of just 15 tracks of its kind in the world.

Monuments to sport

About 20km south of Whistler sits the Whistler Olympic Park, where cross country skiers, biathletes and ski jumpers will test their skills. In all 28 different Olympic events will happen at the park, which sits on a former garbage dump.

A company called Ecosign, which has helped shape more than a dozen ski areas in Switzerland, designed much of the park, while Vanoc hired course specialists to design the actual trails and the two ski jumps.

If Swiss jumper Simon Ammann hopes to win the gold here, he’ll have to tear his eyes away from the spectacular views of tumbling glaciers on Mount Powder to the west. He could sail far too: A small hill protects skiers from the synoptic winds, giving them more control. Touchdown happens on a natural slope framed by towering spruce.

"The whole thing is actually designed to be taken down like a giant Tonka Toy at the end of the Games," said Paul Mathews, founder of Ecosign. "But now there is talk of keeping it. These really are huge monuments to sport."

Tim Neville in Vancouver and Whistler, swissinfo.ch

Vancouver 2010 by the numbers

Operating budget: CAN$1.73 billion

Capital budget: CAN$580 million

Volunteers: 25,000

Journalists: 13,000

Total tickets for sale: 1.6 million

Estimated attendance: 250,000

Estimated TV viewers: 3 billion

Vancouver population: 612,000

Whistler population: 10,000

Whistler population during Games: 55,000

Last Winter Games to be held in Canada: Calgary 1988

end of infobox

Other areas of note

BC Place: Home to the opening and closing ceremonies in Vancouver. Seats 55,000. First time opening ceremonies will be held indoors.

Canada Hockey Place: Usually called GM Place, the arena in downtown Vancouver is home to the Canucks, an NHL team. Seats 19,300.

Cypress Mountain: Ski area with 53 runs located 30 minutes from Vancouver. Snowboard half pipe, boarder and skier cross, freestyle and aerial skiing events here. Features half pipe with 6.7m (22 feet) walls. Gets 10m (33 feet) of annual snowfall.

Whistler-Blackcomb: The busiest ski area in all of North America with more than 2 million skiers a year. About 55 per cent of all Winter Games medals will be awarded in the resort village.

Richmond Olympic Oval: Located just south of Vancouver in city of Richmond. Home to speed skating events. Wood used in venue ceiling comes from British Columbian forests ravaged by pine bark beetles. Seats 7,600.

Pacific Coliseum: Short track speed skating and figure skating events. Located in downtown Vancouver. Eight ice resurface-machine drivers have been trained for three years in sport-specific ice prepping. Seats 14,200.

Olympic Villages: Two. One in Whistler and one in Vancouver. Both will be converted into affordable housing once the Games and a Paralympics are over.

House of Switzerland: Two. One at Bridges restaurant on Granville Island, Vancouver. One in Whistler at the Mountain Club on the Whistler Town Plaza.

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