I was a World Cup "virgin" until this year, but after attending four different World Cup events this winter, I feel much more enlightened.
Between January and March, Vanoc (Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games) successfully hosted nine World Cup events in Whistler.
Spectators had the chance to watch Olympic and Paralympic athletes compete at test events on the downhill runs, cross-country trails, the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre and new biathlon range in Whistler. In Vancouver, athletes tested the new skating ovals and curling and sledge hockey arenas prior to 2010.
These will be the first ever Winter Paralympics held in Canada.
From March 9 to 14, hundreds of Sea to Sky corridor residents and visitors experienced the world's best Para-alpine ski racers. The IPC Alpine World Cup Finals, marked the final Paralympic World Cup downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined races of the season, with 130 competing athletes from 19 countries. It was the first time the 2010 alpine course - Franz's Run had been tested for Paralympic competition.
The event provided VANOC with the opportunity to test the course and to train Games-time volunteers. According to Vanoc, the alpine events used a workforce of 525 people (of which 75 per cent were volunteers).
As a local resident, I witnessed first-hand the organization involved in hosting nine World Cups. The majority of the events were free to the public, so I got out as much as I could, since the chances of me attending the Olympic events in 2010 is nil, since I didn't get tickets.
Visiting athletes and coaches praised Whistler's beauty and the caliber of our venue and facilities. It's a big compliment to hear a Swiss coach tell you how he feels at home in Whistler, and that our mountains reminded him of the Alps.
Although many Whistlerites have seen their share of World Cup alpine events, this was the first exposure for many to the Paralympics, other than the occasional glimpse of local athletes, Phil Chew or Brad Lennea.
I was astounded at the fearlessness demonstrated by the Para-athletes. Take for instance, Australian skier, Bart Bunting, blind from birth who skied the advanced downhill course, following just the voice of his ski guide. I dare anyone to ski with your eyes closed even on a green slope for a mere 20 seconds!
Athletes with disabilities are grouped in classes defined by the degree of function presented by the disability and compete in three divisions: visually impaired, sitting and standing. Individual times are factored depending on the range of the physical disabilities.
Olympics vs. Paralympics
I discovered that there are several misconceptions when it comes to the Paralympics. Some coaches expressed a slight frustration that people were mixing up the Paralympics with the Special Olympics. Two very different events.
Wikipedia defines the Paralympics as "a multi-sport event for athletes with physical and visual disabilities and includes mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness, or cerebral palsy. The Special Olympics is for people with intellectual disabilities.
Before Vancouver and Whistler were awarded the 2010 Games, I believed that the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) both used the "interlocked five rings" symbol. Not so.
It was only after reading Dr. Chris Shaw's Olympic book, Five Ring Circus that I learned of some key differences. The IOC and the IPC are two legally distinct entities, each with their own structure, logos, flag and broadcasting rights.
Shaw writes that the Paralympics are "the last bastion of pure sports at an international level." In his opinion, the Paralympic organizers are in it for the love of the sport, than for all the marketing and profits.
I learned that "para" does not refer to paraplegic, but instead, "para" comes from the Greek word meaning "beside," since the Games are held alongside (weeks after) the IOC's winter or summer Olympics. The Winter Paralympics first became part of the Winter Olympics in 1992.
The IPC flag consists of three semi-ovals of red, blue and green on a field of white. The symbols are derived from the Korean tae-geuks that symbolize the Paralympic's key elements of being a human being: mind, body and spirit. The IPC motto is "Spirit in Motion."
The 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Winter Games will be held from March 12-21, 2010, after many of the spectator, media and security have left town.
The coaches and athletes I spoke to loved the perfect snow conditions, technical terrain of Franz's course and the immaculate grooming done by the Whistler Weasel Workers, who prepared the course better than any European army ever could. The on-hill shuttle service from Creekside to the finish line also received positive reviews from the spectators.
After attending several able-bodied Olympic events, I found marked differences with the Paralympics. Hot drinks and food were always served during the World Cup events I attended.
On March 11, I went to watch the IPC downhill races, where the sub-arctic temperatures hovered around -20C. After five hours of standing in the spectator zone and cheering on athletes, I went looking for some hot cocoa or food, but there was nothing available at the Timing Flats.
I discovered that hot chocolate and bottled water wereonly available only to the athletes. When I returned a few days later, I noticed that hot chocolate and chips were now available to spectators - only a slight improvement.
Where was our Canadian hospitality? During the last World Cup finals event in Italy, local alpine clubs hosted concession stands for athletes and spectators. During the 2009 IPC World Cups in La Molina, Spain, locals served barbecued sausages and with hot gluwein. In Europe, food is always basic, but delicious. All Whistler had on offer was an $18 lunch at Dusty's Bar.
A warm drink, seats and some good food would have gone a long way to making the guest experience more enjoyable.
The TV screens were also missing. During the able-bodied races, spectators could watch athletes skiing from the top of the course. With the Paralympics, the athletes became visible only once they reached the last section in the finish pitch.
Media coverage was also thin for the one-year countdown to the 2010 Paralympic Games on March 12. The national news coverage consisted of the IPC head with federal Sport Minister Gary Lunn on Parliament Hill as they hoisted the IPC flag with Prime Minister Harper. There was no mention of Whistler or interviews with the athletes.
Moving Towards 2010
The Paralympic Games don't generate anywhere near the money that the Olympics do, since they don't get the same broadcasting and sponsorship rights. However, after attending both events, I was truly moved by the Paralympic events. It's amazing to see what athletes can accomplish when one emphasizes their athletic achievements, rather than their disability.
The Paralympics also come across as an after-thought, since they are always held after the Olympics. If it were up to me, I would open the games with the Paralympics , followed by the able-bodied Olympics.
It was great to mingle with visiting Para-athletes, without the visible presence of anti-terrorism squads, and the outlandish ticket prices and transportation restrictions that will come with the 2010 Games next February.
Vanoc should be commended for delivering successful pre-Games World Cups. With some minor tweaks and improvements mainly in the hospitality and disabled accessibility departments, the 2010 Winter Paralympic Games will be an event to remember.