Testing the limits

Behind the scenes at the test run for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics

Testing the limits

Like night and day,” says 25-year-old Canadian mogul queen Jennifer Heil of the change in atmosphere, support—and expectation—since she joined the national freestyle ski team in 2001. Heil nailed her last run at Cypress Mountain in B.C. on the Saturday night of a golden weekend, executing two gorgeous jumps and flowing down the final stretch of moguls so smoothly you could have balanced a glass of water on her helmet. Or make that champagne. Heil and her freestyle compatriots earned Canada near total domination of a World Cup weekend on the West Vancouver mountainside, scoring eight podium finishes in moguls, high-flying aerials and rockin’-sockin’ ski-cross, which makes its Olympic debut next year on this very hill. It was their contribution to the winningest weekend in the history of Canadian winter sports—30 official and unofficial medals at international events staged in B.C., Bulgaria, France and Norway.

The timing, just days shy of a year from the Feb. 12 opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, couldn’t have been better scripted. The string of successes, including simultaneous international events staged by the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee (VANOC) on Cypress, the figure skating arena in Vancouver and the sliding centre in Whistler, is welcome good news. It comes as the Olympic host city and province remain burdened by the prospect of rising costs, a global economic downturn, the city’s refinancing of the troubled athletes’ village, and exaggerated fears of a Montreal-style post-Games debt.

The successes at home made a spectacular weekend all the sweeter, but they were hardly a stroke of luck. The real story is told behind the scenes. And rather like Heil’s Saturday night delight, it only looks easy because you don’t see the donkey work, the meticulous planning and narrow escapes from disaster that came before it. The 16 “test events” in and around Vancouver this year are the closest Games organizers will come to a dry run—a priceless opportunity to train thousands of volunteers, and fine tune everything from the field of play to the concession stands.

Staging the freestyle event on Cypress, a busy ski hill at the height of its season, is a case in point. The planning began more than two years ago as Tim Gayda, VANOC vice-president for sport, tried to find a time when the independently run international freestyle and snowboard tours could intersect. (The boarders run this weekend.) The back-to-back events provide VANOC and the athletes with a sample of the conditions they might face. But it was more of a headache for Cypress staff—a fact they made abundantly clear.

Despite having sucked $16.6 million out of VANOC for Olympic improvements, the independently operated hill’s welcome for the events seemed grudging. Churlish signs were posted at the day lodge reading “No access for athletes.” Chintzy, given the bonanza of exposure the top skiers from 28 countries provided. And the resort allowed just 300 ticketed spectators, forcing others to spend $60 on a lift pass if they wanted entry. Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Association, blasted the operators, calling the set-up “one of the most difficult situations I’ve ever witnessed in my 35 years of competitive elite level sport.” Gayda was far more diplomatic. “We’re trying to impact the mountain as little as possible,” he says. That was no mean feat. It took almost 800 people (136 staff, 582 volunteers, 72 contractors) to build the course, set up equipment, fencing and tents in as short a time as possible, and operate the event. “We’re pushing our troops quite far, but that’s a good thing to learn.”

One part of the Sisyphean challenge did involve hauling great weights up a mountain. There was a serious oh crap moment when VANOC took delivery of the massive generators needed to heat tents, and power cameras and timing equipment. They had no idea they’d weigh in at 1,000 lb. apiece. In the end, they strapped them on to forklift-style blade carriers attached to the front of VANOC’s giant, caterpillar-treaded snow cats. After a slow crawl up the mountain there was no way they could be unloaded. The generators were left sitting on the crucially useful blade carriers. “Just by that, we lost half our capacity to move stuff around,” says Gayda. The challenge after this weekend’s events is plowing out the specially built runs. “You can’t leave these massive features out there for the skiing public.” Trust me, says Gayda, who tried the ski-cross run, with its massive jumps and steep, banked turns, it’s no place for the uninitiated.

Neither is Whistler’s Olympic Sliding Centre. By the end of four days of World Cup events, the 1,450-m-long track had proven itself the fastest sled run on earth. A dozen competitors in the four-man bobsleigh smashed the previously unattainable 150 km/h barrier. Entering the 16th and final turn, the sleds were in fighter-jet territory, pulling more than five Gs. “I’ve never slid that fast,” says Maya Pedersen, the 36-year-old who won women’s skeleton gold for Switzerland at the 2006 Games. “It’s a very difficult track. You have to work, work, work.”

With extreme speed, however, comes extreme danger. A plethora of wipeouts during training had track managers scrambling to smooth out the new facility’s “anomalies”—the almost imperceptible bumps or dips that can throw a sled off-course as it careens through the corners. It was painstaking work. Every centimetre of the track is shaped by hand, built up through repeated water mistings, then scraped and smoothed by crews wielding razor-sharp blades. It’s an art, explains former Canadian sledder Bob Storey, now the president of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation. Advisers from Europe were brought in to teach the VANOC team the sport-specific nuances. “A guy may be able to pebble curling ice perfectly, or make the best hockey rink in the world, but he has no idea how to do this,” says Storey. Whistler’s ever-changing weather, and salt-heavy air, also present their own unique challenges. The result is just what the federation wanted, fast and challenging, with the risks still manageable (no idle concern for Storey, who was in a 1966 crash at Lake Placid that took the life of teammate Sergio Zardini.) “You can make a small mistake and go through, but make a big mistake and you’ll pay for it,” he says.

Whistler has something of a monopoly on the 2010 Games’ most dangerous sports. Along with sliding, the resort town will host ski-jumping and the alpine races. As a result there will always be an air ambulance on standby at the athletes’ village. Joan Maguire, manager of medical services for the Whistler venues, has been using the test events to prepare her staff for the demands of the Olympics. On the mountain, where organizers worry about shifting weather wreaking havoc with races, the pressure is on to quickly assess, stabilize and evacuate the injured—choppering them off within 12 to 16 minutes of the spill. At the sliding centre, there is a luxury of time, but not space. For weeks, Maguire’s teams have been drilling with an old bobsled, figuring out how to safely remove injured athletes inside the track’s icy, phone-booth-like confines. The first trick will be capturing the fallen. When a sled crashes on Whistler’s steep pitch, it continues all the way to the bottom, where a sharp rise—meant to slow the sliders—often sends it back up the track. The venue now has four burly men with firemen’s hooks near the finish, tasked with grabbing the sleds. So far, everyone’s luck has held, says Maguire—bumps, bruises and abrasions, but nothing really serious. “These people are incredibly resilient,” she says.

But the spectacle that is the modern Olympics is as much about what happens off the field of play as on it. Most competition sites will have live music to entertain the crowds. And every venue has its own designated tune spinner—DJ “Vinyl Ritchie” worked the sliding centre this past weekend. Inside the sliding centre’s cramped control tower, Christie Nicolay, VANOC’s executive producer/sport production, watched her team of “gamers”—track announcers, sound, graphic and video gypsies who make the circuit of major sporting events—manufacture atmosphere. The supremely laid-back Californian has worked five Olympics, but it’s her MTV and X-Games experience that shapes the show. The commentary is rapid fire, the music loud, and a former MuchMusic VJ is on hand to interview excited spectators for the big screen.

A key innovation for Vancouver 2010 will be a website allowing athletes to specify what tunes they’d like to hear while competing. (For example, Canadian bobsled pilot Helen Upperton’s tastes run to Fall Out Boy, Coldplay, and Kanye West.) Nicolay is also in charge of the medal ceremonies, and will soon put out her casting call for presenters. They won’t have to be identically sized, as was the case in Beijing, just roughly the same height, she says. And in keeping with Canada’s image, appropriately multicultural. On the production side at least, it’s one of the few details that remain to be ironed out. “We’re really prepared,” says Nicolay, who has been on the job since October 2007. Of course, after Athens, where they were still pouring concrete the week before the opening ceremonies, everything is relative.

It’s not to say that a year out there aren’t still some bumps in the road. At the Pacific Coliseum, home to both figure skating and short-track speed skating, they’re still trying to figure out how to work the new ice surfacing machines. Last weekend, the six-man crew test-drove VANOC’s $170,000 battery-powered—yes, zero emission—Olympia ice cleaners, and it wasn’t pretty, says “ice meister” Kameron Kiland. (Driving an ice machine is “like driving a race car,” explains Kiland, a veteran of the Calgary Olympic Oval: each has its own particular “sight lines” and “corner wings.”) But in juggling two wildly different events inside a single rink, Kiland is facing a far more daunting task. For figure skating, he’ll have to make the building warmer and the ice softer and thicker, as well as repair the deep ruts left by the speed skaters—a severe injury hazard. He’ll also have to tear down short track’s thick safety pads and erect a judge’s platform. All this, he’ll have to do 30 times over the course of the two-week competition—sometimes within a heart-stopping three-hour window. But it’s Vancouver’s high humidity that’s keeping Kiland up at night: “If it’s cold and wet outside”—a likely combination in Vancouver in February—“we have to pre-dry the inside” before such work can even begin. Still, he figures new dehumidifiers and 300 tons of compressors—all part of the $20-million upgrade to East Vancouver’s 40-year-old Coliseum—are up to the task.

Truth be told, however, Skate Canada isn’t crazy about the venue, whose exit sign still sports a giant sticker from the Canucks’ ’94 playoff run. “Torino had a brand-new facility for figure skating,” says CEO William Thompson. “It was spectacular.” This is “an old hockey rink. There’s spots where it could be painted, others where it could be—just—cleaned up a little,” he says.

In an event as large as the Olympics a certain amount of chaos in inevitable. The true measure of VANOC’s success will be in how it deals with the scenarios no one ever contemplated. “It’s hundreds of little things,” says Tim Gayda. The mantra is flexibility. His boss, executive vice-president of sport and venue management Cathy Priestner Allinger, knows that all too well. The 1976 Olympic silver medallist for Canada in speed skating was manager for sport at the Salt Lake City Olympics when the Sept., 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “changed everything.” For a while it wasn’t clear if the Games would even go ahead. Then, five months to their start, security plans, budgets, and communications plans all had to be redrafted.

Having come through that, she’s supremely unruffled by the challenges great and small facing these Games. The mostly sold-out test events have taught the planners plenty. At the Whistler Nordic Centre, for instance, there was an unexpected crush of crowds, an unwanted dump of the white stuff, and a shortage of that lowliest of essentials, the snow shovel. So the venue manager sent a truck on the 100-km round trip to Squamish and cleaned out the local Rona. “You get shovels,” Priestner Allinger says with a shrug. And people to push them.

A greater challenge is the impact on VANOC of the global economic meltdown. Costs have been cut in areas like staffing and promotion to preserve the quality of the venues, and the experience of the athletes, the public and the TV audience, she says. Far from being a source of apprehension and doubt, she believes the Games will prove an antidote. “We’re a bit of hope for the nation,” she says. “Something to look forward to.” Managing an Olympics isn’t that far removed from the philosophy that just put all those athletes on the podium. It’s not enough to win on the good days. You train to win on the bad days, too.