Saturday, February 13, 2010

Our Olympic Adventure (Part 1)

Our Olympic saga began some 15 months ago, when Lisa was confined to bedrest with the impending arrival of Leo.  Equipped with a laptop and an extraordinary surplus of time, she tracked down accommodations at Whistler Village and entered us in the ticket lottery.   Neither process was simple or inexpensive, but we reasoned that if we were ever going to get a chance to see the Olympic Games in person, this was it.   With Vancouver just a couple of hours up the road, and Whistler a familiar long-weekend destination, the opportunity had been placed on our literal and figurative doorstep.

But would it be worth the expense and logistical headaches to make the trip?   Wouldn't it be better to watch the games on TV?   After all, we can visit Vancouver and Whistler any time -- why go when the rest of the world is trying to cram themselves in there as well?   These were the questions going through the minds of many Seattleites, not just our own.

The months leading up to the Games were not necessarily reassuring.  The ticket lottery required patience, equanimity, vigilance and more patience.   The prospect of massive border delays, travel restrictions on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, and severely restricted parking at Whistler did not exactly suggest a hassle-free journey.  Then there was the weather -- after a few weeks of winter in December, temperatures turned balmy throughout the Pacific Northwest and stayed that way.   We watched news reports of truckoads of snow being hauled from higher elevations to the Olympic venue of Cypress Mountain in soggy North Vancouver and wondered if we needed to pack the ice trays from our freezer to help the cause.

Finally, it occurred to us that we had two small children, neither of whom had spent a night away from at least one parent.  After toying with the idea of leaving this question in the innovative hands of their grandmothers, we decided instead to bring the kids along.   But how well would they perform under Olympic conditions?

There was only one way to find out.  We packed the family minivan to the gills, loaded the kids, picked up the babysitter, and headed north under gray and threatening skies.

The first pleasant surprise was the border -- though, in retrospect, it should have been no surprise at all.   Our Canadian hosts were fully staffed up for the occasion.   There was no need to invoke our elaborate plans to take a secondary crossing; we sailed through the Peace Arch at Blaine with barely a tap on the brake and a "bonjour."

Still fearful of traffic snarls, we avoided downtown Vancouver and circled through its suburbs New Westminster and Burnaby.  Tempted by rows of hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants, we stopped to feed the troops, only to find ourselves surrounded by crowds of Olympic enthusiasts.  It turned out that we had just missed the torch parade.   As Miles and I went out to find an ATM to get Canadian cash, we looked sufficiently touristique to draw the attention of a reporter from CBC Radio-Canada, whose initial delight at finding someone willing to be interviewed in French may have faded as I struggled to handle some pretty slow-moving pucks (Q: “Pourquoi est-ce que vous êtes venus aux jeux olympiques?"  A: "Parce qu'ils sont très proches!")

Finding such a festive scene so far from the "centre" of town began to put us into a more Olympian mood.  We sailed along the Trans-Canada across Burrard Inlet and up the somewhat-though-not-totally improved highway to Whistler.   Just to get to our condo, which was conveniently located in the "high-security zone" of the Village, we had to navigate past several volunteer-staffed checkpoints and one platoon of Mounties.

The Opening Ceremonies were still a day away, but the Village was humming with activity.  Enormous stages had been constructed.   Shops were bulging with official merchandise.  Reporters were doing stand-ups in every corner. 

We took a quick gondola ride up to Blackcomb and back, then enjoyed a family dinner on the main square.

Still, there was something missing: snow.   There was none of it on the ground, and as for the mountains, who knew?  You couldn't see them.  The omnipresent drizzle seemed, if you'll forgive the expression, to dampen the enthusiasm in the air.

As we went to sleep, the showers turned to a downpour that pounded the windows all night.  And the forecast called for more wetness.   Would the Games be brought to their knees by El Niño?

The next morning brought the first hint of an answer.   The Village was still as damp as ever, but about a thousand feet above the treeline turned white, and the upper three-quarters of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains were blanketed with close to a foot of new snow.   And then the sun came out.  At this sight, Daddy sprang into action.   Leaving kith and kin asleep in their beds, he hit the slopes.

He was joined by his cousin Martin, a formidable ski racer in his own day, and his wife Robin, both up from Oregon for the games.

 We watched some ski racers (or at least their lackeys) testing out wax for the downhill...

... and checked out viewing areas for the upcoming races on Whistler Creekside.

Even without the anticipatory glow of the Olympics, it would have been a glorious day to be out on the hill.

But as the torch would its circuitous way toward BC Place and the waiting palms of Wayne Gretzky, we heard the news of Georgian luger's crash in a training run down at the sliding center at Blackcomb, followed shortly by the shocking confirmation of his death.

Back at the Village, the mood was as foggy as the weather.  When the klieg lights came on that night, would Canada shine in the spotlight?  Or dissolve in the gloom?   

A crowd of thousands assembled just under our balcony in the main square at Whistler to watch the opening ceremonies from Vancouver.  But a technical problem--attributed to "the satellite" (though Vancouver is just 70 miles away)--interrupted the English broadcast, so they turned on the French channel, putting Canadian bilingualism to the test. 

It wasn't the only glitch.   Only three of the four legs of the Olympic cauldron deployed properly at BC Place, and poor Gretzky seemed momentarily trapped by a malfunctioning door before he was dragged through rainy streets in the back of a truck to light the outdoor flame. 

But the Games were open all the same, competition was set to begin the next day, and we were there to watch all (or at least 3/4ths of it) unfold.

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