As Beijing wraps up its over-the-top show, Vancouver promises a very different event: "We have our own magic," its chief says.
Even before the flame was doused above Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, John Furlong sensed that inevitable moment when the eyes of the world shift, and an Olympic host city goes from being a benchwarmer to next at bat.
“We feel it already,” Furlong, the CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, said by phone Saturday from Beijing.
“It’s pressure. We’re very excited about it, but we have a serious piece of work to complete before the world shows up on our doorstep in 2010.”
The Vancouver 2010 Games — perhaps the closest the Olympics will ever get to Seattle — are less than 18 months away. But in terms of ticket sales and sport-venue test events, both of which launch in October — the countdown now shifts to a matter of weeks.
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To prepare, Furlong and his staff spent a month in Beijing, riding buses, walking through turnstiles, eating food — kicking the tires of an Olympics. His impression:
“You’d have to be a pretty severe critic not to have enjoyed this,” he said. “It’s been impressive. They’ve done a great job. Of course, there are always little things … “
The little things are likely to mean big differences in the way Vancouver’s Games play out in 2010.
For starters, the two Olympics — one summer, one winter — are apples and oranges: The Beijing Games had twice as many athletes, twice as much media, more than four times as many tickets — and its $40 billion-plus budget dwarfs the Vancouver Games’ approximate $2 billion budget for operations and facilities (though taxpayers there are spending another $1 billion to $2 billion on infrastructure and transportation improvements).
Everything about Beijing was over the top, state of the art. The administrator in Furlong marveled at the way Beijing was transformed, in such a short time. “I’ve been here six times in six years,” he said. “I’ve seen six different cities.”
Beijing’s Olympic Green is three times the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, and was essentially built in three years — something that likely would take 30 years in the process-oriented environment of British Columbia.
The realist — and the Canadian — in Furlong knows that nothing of that scale could, or even should, occur in Vancouver, even though it will be the largest metro area ever to host a Winter Games.
That’s why the stark differences Furlong and his staff are predicting for the 2010 Games are more a matter of style. The Games, to be spread between dual Olympic centers in downtown Vancouver, where most ice sports will take place, and Whistler, home of most alpine events, will feel more intimate, friendly, and open, Furlong vows.
The model Furlong most often invokes is the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which are remembered for the celebratory atmosphere that surrounded every event. A feeling of national pride seemed to ooze through the infrastructure, and Furlong believes Vancouver, one of the world’s most diverse cities, can replicate that feeling in a Winter Games.
Key to that, however, is providing an “intimate atmosphere” of packed houses and enthusiastic fans — something the past several Olympics have often lacked.
Part of the problem is out of local organizers’ hands. The International Olympic Committee takes about 30 percent of all tickets off the top, reserving them for officials, sponsors and other members of the “Olympic Family.” The local Games committee has no control over how those tickets are distributed — and whether they get used.
Vancouver organizers will aggressively seek to redistribute tickets that otherwise would go unused. It’s a daunting task, but one deemed especially important because demand for events in Vancouver and Whistler is expected to be immense, from both Canadian and American audiences.
Ticket details — and other nagging concerns, such as long border waits for travelers coming and going from B.C. — are still being worked out, though Furlong says he is “encouraged” by public pronouncements from government officials on both sides.
But the major challenges of building the Games’ infrastructure have largely already been met — on time and on budget, Furlong adds.
Venues at both Whistler and in the city, built with a $580 million (Canadian dollars) construction budget shared by the province and the federal government, are all on schedule, and mostly complete.
Only the Richmond Oval, the speedskating venue, the curling facility at Queen Elizabeth Park and the massive, glass-enclosed International Broadcast Centre on the city waterfront remain under construction.
As promised when Vancouver won the Games bid in 2005, every venue will be available for a full year of winter-sports testing at a world-class level in advance of the Games.
That winter actually begins in just a matter of weeks, when a short-track speedskating test race is scheduled for the remodeled Pacific Coliseum and could include Seattle’s Apollo Ohno. No other Olympic host city has ever had such a work-out-the-bugs opportunity.
Even though the facilities bar has been set ridiculously high by the Chinese, Furlong believes the world will be wowed by some of B.C.’s sports venues.
The massive Richmond Oval, nearing completion on the banks of the Fraser River, is the most impressive structure of its kind anywhere, he said. And other, more natural settings, such as the Whistler Olympic Park, where ski jumpers and Nordic skiers will compete in the Callaghan Valley, “is the most magnificent piece of geography that you could possibly want,” he said.
“We have our own magic.”
Creating it for television audiences as successfully as the Chinese did might be impossible. Vancouver’s opening and closing ceremonies and nightly medal ceremonies, for the first time in Olympic history, will take place indoors, in B.C. Place Stadium.
That presents a challenge, because it prohibits the big, helicopter-aerial opportunities of large outdoor stadiums.
“All this does is spur people on to be more creative,” Furlong insisted, noting that the indoor stadium does provide a notable advantage — absolutely predictable weather.
“I think we’ll be special in our own way,” he said. “It will be very Canadian. We’re a very different place, and a very different city. The world lives in Vancouver. It’s a very diverse place — an environment that’s very friendly.
“We have 18 months of very hard work ahead of us. But I think we’re setting ourselves up for success.”