Whistler's Patience Rewarded with 2010 Winter Games

The road north from Vancouver to Whistler is paved with good intentions, but not nearly enough passing lanes. The Sea-to-Sky Highway winds high above Howe Sound, past Bowen, Gambier and Anvil islands; past ferries and freighters and barge-burdened tugs; past the chill plunge of Shannon Falls and fly-sized rock climbers high up the brooding face of the Stawamus Chief at Squamish.

The road north from Vancouver to Whistler is paved with good intentions, but not nearly enough passing lanes. The Sea-to-Sky Highway winds high above Howe Sound, past Bowen, Gambier and Anvil islands; past ferries and freighters and barge-burdened tugs; past the chill plunge of Shannon Falls and fly-sized rock climbers high up the brooding face of the Stawamus Chief at Squamish. The view, all that in the first hour north of Vancouver, is drop-dead gorgeous - especially if your eyes stray from the road.

It's past Squamish, midway on the climb into the Coast Mountains to Whistler, where the new reality of the 2010 Winter Olympics is already being written in stone. Summer traffic periodically grinds to a halt as vast slabs of mountainside are blasted away to widen the bottlenecked roadbed. The work is part of a $600-million upgrade of the highway - an improvement the International Olympic Committee made a condition of dividing the Vancouver bid to stage most of the skiing, sliding and Nordic events at the resort. The road is an apt, if expensive, link: Whistler exists because of Olympic dreams.

Long-time resident Garry Watson was among the first to glimpse the mountain's potential, on a magnificent June day in 1961. He was at the time a young Vancouver lawyer and ski mountaineer, swept up in the preposterous notion that B.C. should bid for the 1968 Winter Olympics. The catalyst was the 1960 Olympics in the tiny, underdeveloped ski resort of Squaw Valley, Calif. A group of Vancouver businessmen and Canadian Olympic officials were inspired to replicate Squaw Valley's success - once they found a mountain and built a resort. A search of the Coast range yielded London Mountain, then little more than a scenic backdrop for a fishing lodge at nearby Alta Lake.

Watson thought he'd see what the fuss was about. He took a train into the area, there being no roads. He followed an access road to a microwave tower, then made the final climb to the peak. "Ta-dah! I tell you, it was just beautiful," says Watson, now 69 and in active retirement. "The whole valley just opened up at your feet."

He climbed down and joined the bid committee. The wildly premature plan lost to Banff for the Canadian nomination, and the 1968 Games ultimately went to Grenoble, France. But the bid sparked a modest, if haphazard, development of the mountain, renamed Whistler for the sound made by the local alpine marmots. "I wonder if Whistler would ever have properly and fully realized its potential if it hadn't been for that very first bid," says Watson, who's been part of every bid since.

Whistler opened for skiing in 1966 and Olympic hopes continued to guide its destiny. Most of the community's other pitches, to stage the 1972, 1980 and 1988 Games (which went to Calgary), went nowhere. It came tantalizingly close, though, in 1968, when it was the Canadian bidder for the 1976 Winter Olympics. Whistler then was still a modest weekend ski hill, says Watson, sitting in his kitchen, flipping through a copy of that early bid book. Out his front door is a view of the peak of Whistler that first drew him here. The back windows look over Nita Lake. He bought this prime real estate from a fur trapper in 1963 for $387.50. The lot where the family home now stands is worth about $700,000 today, he says. "It's insane." There's a similar exponential increase in Olympic economics. The 1976 bid book put the Olympic budget at $20,806,020. Compare that to the still loose estimates for the 2010 Olympics: a $1.3 billion operating budget, $800 million in facilities and security costs, hundreds of millions more in transportation and construction costs.

Whistler's 1976 bid was doomed after Montreal's canny mayor Jean Drapeau sewed up the IOC's support for his lavish, if financially disastrous, 1976 Summer Olympics. Watson shrugs off the disappointment. He credits that bid with shaping today's pedestrian-friendly village at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. "It at least created the vision of what the village could be," he says. The run of Olympic failures, as any coach knows, proved an excellent teacher.

The Whistler that shares the 2010 Games is by any definition a world-class place. It's the only ski resort in North America, and one of just three in the world, to annually draw more than two million visitors. It's consistently rated among the world's best winter resorts. It annually generates more than $1 billion in tourism revenues (about 11 per cent of the provincial total), not bad for a town with a permanent population of less than 10,000. For many long-time residents, like John Grills, 49, owner of Zeuski's and Thai One On, two of the earliest ethnic restaurants in the town, the Olympics are a somewhat scary next phase in the resort's meteoric growth. He was a Toronto boy who stepped off the bus with his skis in 1974. Though he's worked elsewhere, including a memorable stint in restaurants at Expo 86 in Vancouver, he was drawn back to Whistler. "We built a community," he says with pride. "You don't get a chance to do that very often."

Whistler's very success - and with it a stratospheric average detached-house price of more than $1 million - has caused some to question if winning the Olympics is more good fortune than they can afford. Grills and most others in the business community say the Games will keep Whistler in the forefront of the competition for scarce tourist dollars. "It's a very fickle crowd out there," says Grills.

Tourism Whistler - the town's marketing and reservation arm - plans an immediate Olympic-focused advertising campaign, though the Games are almost seven years away. Advice from other Olympic resorts is "to use that whole seven-year period," says Michele Comeau Thompson, communications manager for Tourism Whistler. "If you're going to get the tourism benefits, you need to capitalize on this as soon as the announcement."

Even giant Intrawest Corp., the operator-developer of the two mountains and Whistler's largest employer, doesn't see the 17-day event as a short-term money-maker, but as a long-term investment. The resort will rent its mountain facilities to Olympic organizers for a still undetermined sum, reported to be in the $10-million to $30-million range. Intrawest's Dave Brownlie, senior vice-president of finance for Whistler/Blackcomb, said the rent will "mitigate" peak-season losses during the Olympic "whirlwind." The benefits for the community, though, are already apparent, says Brownlie, a Whistler resident for 15 years. The extensive bid consultation renewed Whistler's spirit and focus, he says. "We're a lot better off in the community today because of it."

For all their enthusiasm, neither Brownlie nor Grills nor Watson have ever been to a Winter Olympics. In Watson's case, he was waiting for the Games to come to him. He first imagined them from a mountaintop; who knew they'd take 50 years to arrive? Rather like the road to the village, it's been one hell of a ride.

Maclean's July 14, 2003