Peter Shelton

Groovy Vancouver will not be immune

Posted in Olympic Games, Watch columns by pshelton on February 3, 2010

Opening ceremonies are a little more than a week away. And it’s still warm in Vancouver.

Of course, it’s always warm in Vancouver compared to Colorado in winter. It sits right at sea level, and the climate is tempered by a warm Pacific Ocean current from Japan and warm air from Hawaii. Vancouverites like it that way. Except when the weather threatens to jigger some of the most popular events at the Games.

Rain and temperatures in the 50s at Cypress Mountain just west of the city have shrunk the snow pack at venues for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Vanoc (Vancouver Organizing Committee) officials closed the mountain to the public and started hording what snow they had. Alpine skiing venue Whistler has lots of snow right now, though its weather history is spotty. They were forced to cancel World Cup races there three years running in the late 90s and were dropped from the W.C. schedule in 1998. Fog is a big worry at Whistler, especially for the speed events.

It’s been too warm to make snow at Cypress, so they brought in huge mine dump trucks to move snow, about 300 loads to date, from higher elevations. Instead of solid snow structures, they are building some features out of straw bales then lathering on a snow frosting.

Temperatures have cooled a bit this week, and forecasts for the next seven days show drizzle and temps hovering a few degrees above freezing. So, they should be alright for competition. Vanoc and the FIS, the International Skiing Federation, maintain an official, if nervous, optimism. Just in case, they have permission from a provincial government trying to go green, to use nasty, bio-accumulating, snow-hardening chemicals at the last minute, if necessary.

What all of this effort might cost is beside the point if you are the ones hoping to put on a successful Games. A Vanoc spokesperson told The Vancouver Sun that the money comes out of a contingency budget “that will be settled after the Games.”

Canadians who know the financial history of previous Olympics have cause to worry. Back east in their own country, Montreal took 30 years to pay off its $1.6 billion Olympic debt. A 17-cents-per-pack cigarette tax is still paying back the cost of their Olympic stadium.

Analysts who study Olympic costs and benefits say they don’t think any modern Games have ever paid their way. Los Angeles in 1984 is supposed to be the exception. L.A. invented the corporate-sponsor paradigm that has been the model since. (“McDonald’s—Official Restaurant of the Olympic Games.”) Organizers in L.A. claimed a $200 million profit. But economists say that figure doesn’t include expenses, like security and cost-overrun guarantees, that were provided by city, state and federal governments.

Hosting “the world’s biggest party” in 2000 is costing Sydneysiders $100 million a year for the little-used rail system they built. Barcelona (1996) is littered with mostly empty arenas. Athens spent over $12 billion to stage its Games in 2004, more than 5 percent of that country’s gross domestic product. Squatters are now living in the venue that hosted Olympic tae-kwon-do and volleyball.

Organizers of the Nagano Olympics in 1998 faced so much skepticism over their accounting methods that they destroyed their financial records.

I attended the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville as a reporter, and I can say the spectacle was breathtaking, the competition was thrilling, and the Alps showed off for TV with cold, snowy, beautiful weather. But despite the best efforts of Jean-Claude Killy, et al, their balance sheet came in $57 million short. The good citizens of toute la France (those socialists) picked up the tab.

Ill-advised infrastructure costs were another story. The microscopic hot-springs town of Brides-les-Bains decided to build a gondola to connect it directly to the ski resort of Meribel, where the women’s alpine races were staged. It didn’t work out the way they’d hoped, and those poor people are still paying the $40 million bill.

Salt Lake City, which claimed its Winter Games at least broke even (at least their operating budget broke even), was hoping to get a bounce in recognition, in tourism and long-term jobs down the line. Salt Lake has kept up use of some venues, especially the freestyle and Nordic jumps. But the Games didn’t generate more tourism.

The host cities always expect them to, and they never do. I remember my dad telling me that in L.A. in the summer of 1984 the media were predicting an unprecedented freeway wad-up, and they were warning people to please stay home. Come the Games themselves, my dad said, the freeways were practically empty. It was one of the most enjoyable driving experiences of his life.

That’s the way it was in Salt Lake, too. At least on the ski slopes. Jimmy Pettegrew and I skied Alta right in the middle of the fortnight, in new powder, and it was so lonely on the hill we thought rather than 2002, we’d been beamed back to 1942.

I wish Vancouver well. The world will be watching, and they will no doubt put on a show. Theirs, like all host cities, has been a huge financial gamble (somewhere in the $4 billion range). And history, weather included, doesn’t give them particularly good odds.

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