Sliding centre gearing up for winter

Visitors impressed, proud of bob, skeleton, luge facility, official says

In general terms, the approximately 1,500 visitors who toured the Whistler Sliding Centre this past summer - and their reactions to the $105 million facility - can be broken down into two categories, according the man who manages the facility.

Craig Lehto, Whistler Sliding Centre manager for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Organizing Committee (VANOC), last week said most Sea to Sky corridor residents who had toured the facility that will serve as the playing field for bobsleigh, skeleton and luge events during the Olympics were proud to have such a world-class sport venue in their backyard.

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Most who hailed from outside the corridor and took part in the first season of sliding centre tours voiced their approval that the track is completed so far in advance, and those familiar with the sliding sports seemed to feel it was at least equal to other such facilities, Lehto said.

The largest number of foreign visitors came from the United States and Europe, with smaller numbers from Asia, he said.

"We've had a lot of visitors from Germany, where they have four tracks, and they're very familiar with the sport," Lehto said last Tuesday (Aug. 26). "Generally speaking, they're quite impressed with the venue and that we're ready this far in advance."

"I'd characterize it differently depending on where the visitors are from," he added. "I think the local visitors are just proud to see what an amazing venue we have in our community."

A third group of visitors was just interested in learning more about the sports themselves, Lehto said. "Inside the track lodge, we have displays about how the track was built, so that's really a process of building a (fan) base for the sports themselves," he said.

The track, which was substantially completed by last Christmas, underwent the process of "homologation" (certification) by representatives of the three sliding sports' international governing bodies this past spring. While a few athletes took runs on the track before and during that process, the first official training isn't slated to begin until next month, when Canadian bobsledders, luge and skeleton athletes will begin training there in earnest.

The sliding centre is to host its first World Cup competitions almost exactly one year before the Olympics - the joint bobsleigh/skeleton event slated for Feb. 2 to 7, 2009, and the luge scheduled for Feb. 16 to 22.

The first season of self- or volunteer-guided tours at the track ended on Sunday (Aug. 31) and resume Oct. 7. In the meantime, track officials will be busy fine-tuning the facility in preparation for the arrival of the Canadian teams for training later in October. That includes laying and grooming a sheet of ice on top of the concrete track, allowing the athletes to achieve top speeds of 130 km/h.

"We're getting into the final stages of preparations for this winter," Lehto said, adding that that includes recruitment of wintertime staff and volunteers.

When the athletes arrive, a top priority will be helping Canadians gain a home-ice advantage on the track by allowing them to log as many runs as possible during the first of their high-performance camps, he said.

"That's the promise we've made to the Canadian public and that'swho we start off with this year."

The public likely won't be able to make runs on the track - either on sleds with runners or those with wheels - until at least the summer of 2009, Lehto said. However, that's something that's definitely part of the plan, he said.

Officials' recruitment camps are slated to take place later this month, with a luge officials' courses set for Sept. 20 and 21, and a bobsleigh-skeleton course planned Sept. 27 and 28. For information, please visit www.whistlerslidingcentre.com

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