Feb 27, 2010 11:03:40 PM
Lonely Planet at the Games – Day 16: Whistler
With jam-packed Vancouver hogging the Olympic limelight, it’s easy to forget that Whistler – two hours north via the Sea to Sky Highway – was originally regarded as co-host of the 2010 Winter Games. But since IOC rules dictate that only one town can officially nail its moniker to the five-ring circus, the gable-roofed ski resort was relegated to calling itself “Host Mountain.”
Which is a shame, because the Olympic vibe is alive and kicking in Whistler, the base for most outdoor events and home to its own live sites and Victory Ceremonies. And since there’s a different but wholly enticing feel to catching the action up here, it’s well-worth a trek from the big city.
Trundling in by bus, I first hit the four-man bobsleigh event at Whistler Sliding Centre. After all the jokes about the Games’ summer-like weather, it’s a welcome surprise to suddenly see snow here. Standing with the flag-studded multitudes near the inside of one shiny track bend, I’m briefly mesmerized by the large, wet flakes percolating through the hemlock trees fringing the venue. Now I know I’m at the Winter Olympics.
Despite the chill – my late-breaking decision to wear long johns is happily paying off – there’s a festive atmosphere among the spectators. When the approaching rumble announces the next blurred bobsleigh rounding the bend at over 100km per hour, it’s greeted by a crescendo of cheers and clanging cowbells. Between blurs, almost everyone is chatting with newfound friends.
“It’s much more relaxed here,” says a well-bundled Kerry Knox. She’s just moved to Vancouver from Bristol, England with partner Mathew Pownall, who’s standing nearby with a large, slightly damp Union Jack cape. “The evening’s have been good in Vancouver but it can get very busy there,” she adds, stamping her feet for added warmth.
Despite his patriotic cape, Pownall has quickly taken to the mass Maple Leaf shenanigans that have been a feature of these Games. “I’m enjoying the whole Canadian vibe. And the locals have been really friendly, from the bus drivers to the volunteers at the venues,” he says, flicking his eyes to the track as another bobsleigh zips past.
Back in the picturesque village an hour later, I join the laid-back throng weaving between the wood-built lodges, many of them checking out reduced Olympic merch or stopping for leisurely beers at patio bars. The precipitation that was snow on the mountainside is falling as steady rain here. But everyone is lagged enough to handle it and there are several added attractions to keep body temperatures above freezing.
The Village Square live site – unlike Vancouver’s, there are no line-ups to catch the acts – is crackling to life with a freebie show from Nova Scotia indie rockers Wintersleep. Drawing a gaggle of dedicated twentysomething fans to the front of the stage, their kick-ass, 70s-style guitar sound also stops plenty of passing oldsters in their tracks. Nearby, I chat to a couple of young locals about what it’s like to have the Games in your own back yard.
“A few people weren’t really into having the Olympics here at first. But we’ve all been swept up by it and everyone seems to have a smile on their face now,” says a grinning Rachelle Palkovsky, sitting on a wall and enjoying the show with her friend Sarita Cabrera. “It’s a cool, chilled out crowd here – not too many crazy partiers. Everyone’s just having a great time,” adds Cabrera, noting that they’ve been out on the town every night since the Games started.
Acting on their recommendation, I check into the al fresco Whistler Medals Plaza around 6.30 p.m. for the nightly Victory Ceremony show. Catching one of these at Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium can be a slightly detached affair: you’re often seated so far from the action that you’re better off watching the giant TV screens instead. But Whistler’s ceremonies are far more intimate and interactive.
Joining the convivial crowd of several thousand facing the large stage, I forget all about the rain as DJs, dancers and comedy co-hosts – plus free hot chocolate from a nearby stand – keep things moving. There’s even a rousing show from Somali-Canadian rapper-poet K’naan, who keeps the entire crowd in full-on groove mode, especially with his anthemic Wavin’ Flag number.
But it’s the medal awards that are the highlight. I could barely see the athletes when I watched a ceremony from high in the rafters of BC Place at the start of the Games. Here, as the winners of the ladies alpine skiing (slalom) and men’s biathlon 4 x 7.5km relay are presented with their well-deserved quarry, I can see right into their faces. Those looks of pure, unbridled, leap-in the-air joy are exactly what the Olympics are all about.