Whistler’s Olympic legacy

Five years after co-hosting the 2010 Games, locals look back on what the community has gained

One moment from the 2010 Olympics stands out for alpine skier Mike Janyk.

The born-and-bred Whistlerite had been training single-mindedly for the Games since the day the International Olympic Committee (IOC) revealed the event would take place in his hometown.

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“I remember standing in front of the stage in Whistler Village seven years prior when they read the announcement that we got the bid and going crazy,” Janyk said. “I had my best years in the World Cup during that time, but it was really six years of my life driven to one day.”  

But when the day finally came for Janyk to race in the men’s slalom, he finished 13th, dashing his podium dreams. He was deeply disappointed.

“I was walking from the finish and I had done the media and talked to my coaches and stuff and I walked by a couple of parents,” he said. “They were on the receiving line at the end and their kids were asking for autographs.”

The kids, it turned out, had taken part in the Mike & Manny ski camp — which Janyk puts on with Manuel Osborne-Paradis — and they had had an amazing time. Observing that Janyk was upset, the couple offered some perspective. “They said, ‘Beyond the results of what you did today, what you do in your career is amazing,’” he said. “It was a huge shift for me. That had a lasting impact on who I wanted to be as
an athlete.”

February marked five years since Whistler co-hosted the Olympics (the anniversary of the Paralympics is this month) alongside Vancouver, and locals have had time to reflect on the impact the Games have had on their lives.

There are the venues — which have been well-used post-Games, unlike in many other Olympic communities — from the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood to Whistler Olympic Plaza and Whistler Olympic Park; the reputation Whistler has earned for pulling off a world-class event so successfully and with a commitment to the environment and the lingering impact on the sports community.

The legacies are tangible and intangible, personal and communal and, for some, they were unexpected.

***

Ken Melamed was the only councillor in Whistler to vote against the bid.

At the time, he was worried about the negative and lasting impact hosting a two-week event could have on the resort. “We had just started our journey to sustainability,” said Melamed, who is now running for the Green Party in the West Vancouver – Sunshine Coast – Sea to Sky riding. “The question on a lot of people’s minds was, ‘How could we move forward and improve environmental stewardship and look after the natural environment and maintain our sense of community and identity?’”

By October 2002, just over half of locals who had weighed in on a phone survey were in favour of the Games. When it came time for council to vote on whether it would support the bid, Melamed offered a lengthy speech at the meeting about why he was reluctant. “I didn’t feel there was enough environmental protection in place and VANOC (Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) didn’t understand our interest in hosting the Games without compromising our values,” he said. “I wanted to see the positive, but I thought it was judicious of us to express a healthy amount of caution. We didn’t go into this blindly. We went and talked to other communities and heard from them about mistakes that could be made.”

But in July 2003, the IOC announced Vancouver and Whistler had won the bid to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Melamed was elected mayor a month later and realized the municipality had a critical task: to host the Games without clashing with community values. The Multiparty Agreement that had been signed by stakeholders before the bid was even announced went a long way to ensuring financial commitments and responsibilities were established from the outset. “We asked for 300 acres of land for residential housing, boundary expansion to protect and ensure the Official Community Plan (OCP) and our commitment to responsible development was protected,” Melamed said. “The RMI (Resort Municipality Initiative) came out of that document.”

Whistler also asked for something that had never happened outside of the main host city: to host medal ceremonies for the events that took place here. That way, the town could ensure it would remain full, lively and vibrant, which would impact local businesses. It also offered another chance to showcase the arts and culture community with music and animation leading up to the ceremonies. The festivities would take place in the to-be-constructed Whistler Olympic Plaza.

“Whistler municipality took on, first and foremost, Olympic Plaza,” Melamed said. “At the time there was a lot of controversy over it. Now it’s generally recognized as a lasting legacy of the Olympics — a hub for culture and multi-purpose event venue.”

Current Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who served as a councillor before and after the Games, said that council and administration took a lot of steps for which we can be grateful today.

“(They) took the time to ensure the principles and values were set up and clearly understood by VANOC and the community so that there wouldn’t be surprises after the Games were over,” she said. “You look at our athletes’ village, for example, and the fact that there was a plan to transform it into an affordable housing neighbourhood and how it’s been so successful as a result. You compare it to the City of Vancouver where they ran into significant hurdles with construction and subsequent use of their athletes’ village — there were so many ways Whistler really did raise the bar.”

***

Tina Symko, who worked as a senior environmental management and sustainability manager with VANOC, is reminded of the legacy every morning when she wakes up in her family’s Cheakamus Crossing home. Like Wilhelm-Morden pointed out, the neighbourhood is considered one of the most valuable outcomes of the Games — and one of the biggest examples of how Whistler hosted under its own terms. It was built as the athletes’ village with plans to convert it into a neighbourhood to help achieve Whistler’s goal of housing 75 per cent of
its workforce.  

“We’re thankful for that legacy left behind from the Games,” Symko said. “Every day I walk through the Village I see the rings and the plaza. Every time I go to sleep I think, ‘This is where the skeleton team slept during the Olympics.’”

Like Melamed, Symko was initially worried about the negative environmental impact the Games could have on Whistler. “I was working for AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment) at the time during the bid phase. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope it’s a good idea.’ I knew we would do an awesome job compared to other cities in the running because those things were so important to us, culturally,” she said.

She believes the environmental guidelines Whistler created as a stipulation for co-hosting raised the bar for future hosts. “We talked about that stuff more than anyone had before,” she said. “When we found tiny tailed frogs on an Olympic venue, we didn’t brush it to the side; we had a team literally hand picking the frogs out of the way… It was the first time so many environmental groups were brought together to try and make it better from the inside. Everyone walked away feeling that we made it better.”

That was the outcome Maureen Douglas had promised during public meeting after public meeting leading up to 2010. She worked for VANOC as director of community relations for eight years. “It was hard to get my grocery shopping done,” she said. “It was challenging. Whistler is a remarkably informed and engaged community. They have a strong sense of what we want this community to be. All the leadership at VANOC said, ‘Whistler made those Games better for their push around sustainability.”

Aside from brick-and-mortar legacies, for Douglas there has also been a less tangible outcome from the Games for the community. “There’s a legacy of competence,” she said. “Competence and confidence are really important. Whistler has this awesome can-do attitude, which drove a lot of the things we did in the Games — things around the periphery too. We used the Games as momentum.”

She cites TEDActive, which is about to launch its second Whistler event this month, as one example. The technology already existed for the conference to offer a live broadcast from its Vancouver stage to the Whistler annex.

“Since the Games there’s no incoming event or external group that would look at Whistler and say, ‘well they don’t know how to do it.’” Douglas said.  

Melamed believes the Olympics have also impacted tourism in the resort — adding new offerings that didn’t exist pre-Games. “In the competitive world of tourism, if you don’t reinvest and reinvigorate and add options for people, your visitors see you as being stale and stagnant,” he said. “One of the fears that everybody had at the time was what do you do after the Olympics? Here we are, five years later, and we’re coasting on some degree with what the Olympics provided us. The next question is what does Whistler do to stay on the cutting edge? There is a culture of innovation and planning that’s still very strong.”

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