Winter Olympics: The buzz around Whistler

by Brad Carr

I had an amazing few days at the Olympics. I’m now continuing my ski-trip up in Alaska, but tinged with a little bit of regret that I didn’t schedule myself a longer stint at the Games.

The main thing about the Olympics is the excited, euphoric mood that engulfs it. Forget the whinges that some in the media (eg. particularly those of British origin) have trotted out – their mission in life is to find something to complain about, perhaps with an added motive of preparing more favourable ground for how London 2012 will be received. If Disneyland is ‘the happiest place on Earth’ and if Vegas is ‘Disneyland for adults’, then an Olympic Games is the equivalent for the sports fan.

Ski resorts are happy places at any time. Invariably, everyone you meet on a ski hill is in a good mood, happy just to be there. If snow conditions, weather or visibility are ordinary, you will repeatedly hear you chairlift companions stated the adage that ‘a bad day skiing beats a good day at work’, similar to the mentality of fishermen or golfers. It is perhaps compounded by the fact that the skiing is maybe a little inaccessible or imposing to those who are not already ‘in’ it – that a ski resort is a happy and upbeat place in part because those who mightn’t enjoy the experience have generally chosen to not put themselves in that position.

So take that cheerful ski resort mentality and put it together with the Olympics, and you’ve got a real buzz in the air, and grinning faces all around. Such was exactly what I found myself in, at both a night of speed-skating in Vancouver and a few days at Whistler.

The speed-skating atmosphere was dominated by a crowd of Canadians who had waited a lifetime and travelled across the country for this. I sat next to a lovely old couple from Winnipeg, who proudly held up home-made signs and boasted to me that 30% of the Canadian speed-skating team comes from their town. Not wanting to risk upsetting the mood, I bit my tongue and refrained from suggesting that this might be because there’s nothing else to do there…

Canadian crowds are a mix of both the jovial, good natured and the fiercely patriotic, a reminder of the similarities that we share with them. They have 1.5 times our population and 1.5 times our landmass; as such, they share our sense of open space and an outdoors culture, and of being overshadowed by the more populated and powerful nations. Like us, they perceive themselves as underdogs and they love the chance to assert themselves the powers in a field of endeavour that they have a bit of an inclination for – and while for us, that might be swimming or sailing, it’s snow and ice sports for Canada.

At Whistler, the scene was a bit more ‘international’. Ordinarily, there’s very little trans-Atlantic ski traffic – both the Europeans and North Americans have such great skiing on their own doorsteps that there isn’t the need for them to journey abroad (the same can be said for the Japanese also). But for the Games, Whistler had uncharacteristically high populations of Swiss, Germans, Finns & Norwegians. My Canadian friends had rented out some of their rooms to Germans for the duration of the Games (and I’m hoping there are no lasting consequences of me opportunistically teaching their 3-year-old daughter the Basil Fawlty phrase “Don’t mention the war”).

Most nations had a venue set up for exhibitions, celebrations and miscellaneous socialising. There’s a ‘Canada House’ in each of Vancouver and Whistler for the duration of the Games, the Vancouver one generally having a 1-hour queue to see the exhibits. ‘Austria Haus’ and ‘Deutsch Haus’ can be found, and the ‘Swiss Haus’ (a normal Whistler bar that was taken over) had a huge throng of people round it the night after Defago Didier won Gold – money or queuing wouldn’t get you in the door, but a Swiss passport would. I never saw an ‘Australia House’, but was amused to see the ‘Savage Beagle’ bar in Whistler Village had become ‘Jamaica House’ for the fortnight! With bars and ‘live-sites’ (outdoor big-screens) in abundance and all showing multiple events, the Village was constantly buzzing.

But the biggest buzz was (to paraphrase Dennis Cometti from a different type of Olympics) a rare buzz, an unexpected buzz, the best kind of buzz.

The Alpine Skiing courses (for the Downhill, Slalom, Super G and Combined events) run down Whistler mountain to Creekside (an older, smaller base south of Whistler Village). The official tickets were all for the temporary grandstands and standing areas at the finish of this course, and some of the seasoned spectators were bemoaning how the days of Albertville and Lillehammer in the early 1990’s (when the crowd would line the length of the whole course, often armed with cowbells) had given way to Salt Lake City 2002 and Turin 2006 where not a soul was up on the hill.

So when a few hundred people bought lift-tickets to go skiing at Whistler-Blackcomb on the day of the Men’s Downhill, we headed up in the gondola with curiosity and a bit of hope as to how close we might be able to get to the Downhill course, but not a lot of serious expectation. When we discovered that you could ski right up to the side of the course, it gave rise to a rather bizarre phenomenon: a sporting crowd that was absolutely ecstatic, for reasons that had nothing to do with the contest or result. The mood was just unanimously delirious, and it didn’t matter in the slightest which nationalities you got to see ski. Sales of $10 el-cheapo souvenir cowbells did a roaring trade. For me personally, to have a day skiing at Whistler-Blackcomb (which are 2 seriously big mountains, with over 200 ski runs) and to get the bonus of 1.5 hours of watching the best skiers in the world (in fierce competition) thrown into the bargain, it was probably the greatest day up on the hill that I could ever hope for.

Of course, the following day saw the Women’s Downhill postponed, which mucked up the plans of a few people. Most of those with tickets consoled themselves by going skiing on the huge expanse of Whistler terrain for the day – such was the intent of NRL CEO David Gallop (who was to watch the Women’s Downhill as guest of Foxtel), but it ended for him with a broken collarbone after a ski accident. I don’t imagine that’s be a great thing to have to carry on a 14-hour flight home, and I doubt he’ll get much sympathy next time he meets with his sport’s Players Association…

So I’m completely rapt with my experience at the Games, but if I had to make a special effort to try to find a couple of things to criticise (say, if I was a British journalist), mine would be ‘Americans’ and ‘Australian ski uniforms’.

Taking the Americans first (and they are leading the medal count), I’d had a terrific time travelling round the US for a couple of weeks prior to the Games, meeting people that were polite, helpful and reasonable everywhere I went. I was actually warming to them… and then I got to Vancouver.

In part, it might be the Canadian influence getting to me. I mentioned that they share our sense of being overshadowed by more powerful nations, but in Canada’s case, such is right on their doorstep. One of the locals’ favourite moments in the Opening Ceremony was when Canadian poet Shane Koyczan recited the line that we “range from A to zed, and yes we say zed instead of zee.” Former Mexican dictator Porfrio Diaz once lamented “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” and I sense the Canadians would relate that sentiment.

But more so, it’s the way that an American apparently has to make it all about them. The night I went to the speed-skating, 3 Koreans led coming into the last strait, before a Bradbury-style event saw 2 of the Koreans crash out and 2 Americans elevated to the minor medal positions. Not “minor” from their perspective though – they ran around clutching multiple flags and doing laps of honour, while the Korean bloke who had actually won was left to wonder if he might be able to share in a little of the limelight once the Americans had settled down. The 2 US skaters even dwelled a fair while in a hugging pose whilst on the podium, in front of the doubtlessly-bemused Korean Gold medallist. And apparently a similar scene was taking place at Cypress mountain in the freestyle skiing at the same time. Perhaps I’m being old-fashioned, but gees, show a bit of deference to the Olympic champion who has (after all) just beaten you. I’m pleased that American skier Bode Miller (one of my favourites) has been far more respectful on his 3 trips to the medal podium.

It was great to see Australian snowboarder Torah Bright win, and great also that she was actually wearing green and gold whilst doing so. But why are our skiers (eg. Begg-Smith) wearing white? Has the AOC hired some fashion designer who’s decided that they’re going to make a statement and eschew our ‘cliched’ national colours? Is it actually supposed to be a take on white-obsessed AFL clash strips (I doubt it)? Is it not white, but rather a subtle tribute to another Aussie sporting legend in the form of cream/bone/off-white/ivory/etc (even more doubtful). Just put the Aussie team in green and gold – I don’t care what style or design (there’s your scope to be creative), but those are our colours, let’s see our team wear them.

All up though, it’s been an absolutely terrific thing to be part of. I’ll continue following the Games, albeit via the more dubious US NBC coverage now. Hopefully Aussie Lydia Lassila can go well in the Womens’ Freestyle Aerials final, and I think there’s still some substantial drama to unfold in the ice hockey too.


  1. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Brad, glad you were able to get up close to the action and enjoy the buzz of the Winter Olympics. Whistler and Vancouver sound like gorgeous places. Torah Bright looked great in gold I thought. White is an interesting colour to wear on snow isn’t it? I wonder if athletes choose certain colours to enhance their appearance in certain events. I like the American uniforms for the different sports too.They always look good. As usual no shortage of controversy with the judging.

  2. Yes Pamela, the American snow-boarding uniforms are the ones getting all the attention here – snowboard pants designed to look like jeans. Apparently Burton are onyl going to make them available for public sales at the star of next northern winter, all part of building up the expectation in their marketing strategy.

    The big talk here is all ice hockey, with the gold-mdeal game tomorrow. Last Sunday’s game between the US & Canada (the last qualifying game) had the largest tv audience in Canada of any tv show ever. With the US having upset the Canadians then but Canada having made it back the hard way (beating the highly-favoured Russians in the quarter-finals along the way), it’s a record that’s only going to stand for one week. It will rate reasonably well in the US also, but as far as Canadians are concerned, this is the biggest sporting event ever in the history of humanity…

    Sadly for their skiers and skaters, all of Canada’s other golds pale into insignificance alongside the quest for this one…

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