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Whistler and Vancouver: a tale of two Winter Olympics

Amplifying a recent trend, the 2010 Winter Olympics will be split between two cities – Vancouver and Whistler – almost completely separate from each other. Critics say it undermines the Olympic spirit of unity.

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That message has been gaining force for more than a decade. The last village to hold an Olympics was Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994. “I’m not sure Lillehammer could hold an Olympics of the size they are today,” says Ed Hula of "Around the Rings," a publication that follows the Olympic bid process in detail.

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The International Olympic Committee seems to agree. Its 2014 choice of Sochi, Russia, is unique in that no Olympic events at all will be held in the Black Sea tourist city of 400,000. Instead, the indoor events will be at an Olympic park 30 miles south of the city, and the mountain events will be held another 30 miles inland.

Significantly, Sochi beat out Pyeongchang. Despite a desire to spread the global appeal of the Winter Games to new areas like South Korea, the International Olympic Committee also rejected Pyeongchang for the 2010 Games.

Unlike Sochi and Vancouver, Pyeongchang wants to run the entire Olympics out of the town, meaning the closest major airport would be in Seoul, 2-1/2 hours away. It’s as if Whistler alone – a ski town of 10,000 – bid for the Olympics.

The recent trend toward cities like Sochi and Vancouver “is done for practicality,” says Hula. “You have to have a good airport, and you have to have good hotels.”

Recognizing this, the Spanish town of Jaca linked its 2014 bid with the major city of Zaragoza after several failed bids. The bid again failed but has inspired Barcelona to bid for the 2022 Games in conjunction with nearby towns in the Pyrenees.

Squaw Valley, Calif., home of the 1960 Games, is also working on a 2022 bid, though this time in conjunction with Reno, Nev., 45 miles away.

The Vancouver Games could define the limits of how separate an Olympics can be. Vancouver and Whistler are connected only by a 70-mile ribbon of road that darts along stormy sea coasts and among foggy, pine-fretted peaks. It is as breathtaking as it is inconvenient.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee has had to secure a half-billion dollars solely to upgrade the road, which in places can leave bus riders feeling like they are on the deck of a ship in high seas.

But if athletes in Whistler feel marooned, many aren’t complaining. French ski jumper Vincent Descombes Sevoie might not have a chance to see figure skater and countryman Brian Joubert ambling through his village, but he’s having fun meeting the athletes who are here.

“We don’t often meet the alpine skiing guys or cross-country,” he says. “But with alpine skiing, cross-country, biathlon … it’s really nice to meet them [in the athletes’ village].”

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Mark has been covering the Olympics since 2002, making this his fifth Olympic Games. Keep up with Mark as he tweets throughout the Games.

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