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.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP
Unidentified skiers practice in heavy snowfall during a Cross Country training session at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada, Thursday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The Winter Olympics are opening tomorrow and Czech alpine skier Klara Krizova is desperate to go to the ceremonies in Vancouver. It is her first Olympics, after all.

But chances are she won’t make it, she says. The reason is not any sort of ban or curfew. It is simple geography.

Though these are known as the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, they are actually two different Olympics going on simultaneously – one in Vancouver and one in the mountain village of Whistler. And getting between them is no easy matter.

The three-hour bus ride means Krizova would not return to Whistler, where she is competing and staying, until past midnight – and she has training the next day.

In this way, the Vancouver Games are merely amplifying a trend begun more than a decade ago. As the Winter Olympics outgrow their homespun Nordic roots to include snowboarders riding fakey and VIPs expecting five-star treatment, the Lillehammers and Lake Placids of old simply can’t accommodate what the Games have become.

The result has been a shift to bigger cities, but with few big cities being situated directly at the foot of an Olympic quality mountain range, the Winter Olympics have increasing become schizophrenic. The Turin Olympics were the first to feature more than one athletes’ village – an acknowledgment that the distance between the city and the mountain venues had become too great an inconvenience for athletes.

This year, that split is even more stark. In addition to a separate athletes’ village for Olympians in skiing and sliding events, Whistler also has its own medals plaza, meaning that athletes there may never see Vancouver except during opening and closing ceremonies – and, in Krizova’s case, probably not even then.

The athletes, many of whom have never been to a Games with one Olympic village (Salt Lake was the last one), seem content. The Whistler Olympic Village, they say, is much better furnished than the sparse athletes’ villages in the mountains outside Turin.

But from the perspective of history, something is lost, says David Wallechinsky, author of “The Complete Book of the Olympics.”

Is the era of the village Olympics over?

No longer do the Winter Olympics bring together all the athletes into one village, where downhill skiers can sit down in the cafeteria next to figure skaters and curlers.
Now, “it’s just like being at another stop on the World Cup circuit,” Wallechinsky says. “It’s significant if it becomes standard.”

Whether it becomes standard could essentially be decided next year. Bidding for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games are Munich, Germany; Pyeongchang, South Korea; and Annecy, France. The latter two are villages seeking a return to the ethic of Innsbruck. Munich is Germany’s third-largest city. If Munich wins, it would be a message that the era of the small-town Olympics is over.

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.

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].”


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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