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Canadian confidence to banish British blues

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Matt Slater | 13:41 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009

The budget is about to be revised upwards, sponsors are filing for bankruptcy and nobody knows how to pay for the athletes' village - these are just some of the headaches organisers of the next Olympics are facing.

So, Vancouver, if you knew then what you know now would you have bid for the 2010 Winter Games?

"We absolutely would have. It's all about timing. If this crisis was going to happen during our lifecycle, it's happened at the right time. Despite the challenges, we're very positive."

Canadian athletes show their support for Vancouver 2010 at the Turin Games

Those are the words of Dave Cobb, the Vancouver 2010 organising committee's (Vanoc) executive vice-president for revenue, marketing and communications, the money and "message" man.

Compare that blast of Canadian confidence to Olympic Minister Tessa Jowell on the prospect of preparing for London 2012 during an economic meltdown.

Last November, Jowell said we "would almost certainly not" have bid for the Games in 2005 if we had known just how nasty the second half of 2008, all of 2009 and we're not sure how much of 2010 would be.

Admittedly, she has rowed back from this remark almost as furiously as Redgrave and Pinsent, but it was hardly the Churchillian conviction many were hoping for from the project's cheerleader-in-chief within government.

And the mood wasn't helped a month later when senior International Olympic Committee member Kevan Gosper pitched up to tell London 2012 chief Sebastian Coe: "I think you and your team face the toughest time - short of war - to get the project to 2012."

Hold on a minute, Kev, even the sourest of soothsayers predict a recovery before 2012: poor Vancouver has got to put on the slipping and sliding show in the full face of the storm's wintry blasts. Talk about northern exposure.

But if they're regretting pipping South Korea's Pyeongchang to the right to host the Games in 2003 they're doing an admirable job of disguising it.

"We knew there would be ups and downs in the economy and we have been very fortunate that for the first five years it was all up and only in the last six months has it gone down," said Cobb.

"From a revenue standpoint our strategy was to get out there as early as possible - we're at over 90% of our sponsorship target and we've sold all our tickets. We're in good shape."

One of Vancouver 2010's three mascots, Quatchi, between the sticks

There is much that London, which has just passed the halfway mark between winning the bid and staging the Games, can learn from Vancouver's pragmatic and proactive approach.

By using existing venues and tapping into already-planned (and largely paid-for) infrastructure improvements, Vancouver 2010 has been able to keep costs down.

The process hasn't been entirely smooth - the forecast for the venues budget has been breached, the athletes' village development in Vancouver (there is another at Whistler, the famous ski resort) is in real bother and Vanoc is set to confirm it will need more money to stage the Games.

But it is important to put this in context: the price tag for the venues is a modest £330m, what happens to the athletes' village on Vancouver's waterfront is somebody else's headache (Vanoc has just hired the development) and Vancouver 2010's running costs should go no higher than £1bn, half what Coe and co will spend on staging London 2012.

The organisers have also done a superb job in selling the Games.

Vanoc has built on warm memories of the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988 (a financial if not sporting success for Canada) and dismissed any lingering national hang-ups from Montreal's infamous Summer Games.

Those 1976 Games are almost as famous for the havoc they wrecked on the city's finances (the good people of Montreal only finished paying for the "Big Owe" in 2006) as anything the likes of Nadia Comaneci and Sugar Ray Leonard achieved in competition.

So despite concerns about the expense, the logistical challenge of using two sites (Vancouver and Whistler) 80 miles apart and the paradox of basing a Winter Olympics in a sea-level city with average February temperatures of five degrees centigrade, the Canadian public has bought into the 2010 concept.

A view of Vancouver's waterfront with the mountains in the background

The box office opened in October and in just five weeks orders were taken for £190m worth of tickets - the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002, in comparison, took in £40m in its first nine weeks.

"Those tickets went on sale in the middle of this financial crisis," Cobb told me. "Winter sport is incredibly popular here, especially ice hockey.

"But we're finding it doesn't really matter what sport it is. Sales were great for the sports we don't know so well. Canadians just want to experience the Games.

"The Summer Games are different. They're larger and there are more sports that won't be familiar to the host country, wherever that might be.

"So it's important to educate people about the different opportunities so they don't just plan to see the athletics and swimming. Everybody will want to see those.

"I would encourage the Locog team (London 2012's organising committee) and the British people to think more broadly than just wanting to go to that athletics final. They should grab the chance to experience as much of the Games as they can."

The "experience" is something Cobb and his team are passionate about. Like the rest of us, they were impressed by the grandeur and organisation of the Beijing Games, but they also noticed the empty seats and flat atmospheres. It is something Vancouver 2010 is determined to avoid.

London is too and will be watching how the Canadians balance the ticketing needs of sponsors and top brass, with the more democratic desire to pack 'em in, without compromising security.

London 2012's planners would also do well to look at Vancouver's legacy planning. What happens when the athletes, blazers and commentators go home has become the most fundamental question for any host city, apart from Beijing, that is, which didn't seem to care at all.

By mainly using venues that are already viable, the Canadians have given themselves an easier task than London's plans for using sport as a regeneration vehicle. But Vanoc has also taken the precaution of starting an endowment fund to finance those venues that may struggle in the future, in order to prevent them becoming millstones around tax-payers' necks.

But legacy isn't just bricks and mortar - Vancouver 2010 will be deemed a failure if it doesn't inspire a generation of kids to get off their sofas. And while Canada failed to win a single gold medal in Calgary, 18 years later in Turin they won seven and finished fifth in the 2006 Winter Olympics medal table.

The women's ice hockey team contributed to Canada's fine haul of Olympic medals in Turin

None of this will necessarily come as news to Coe and Locog, but with knockers lining up, and a difficult year ahead, London 2012 should look to Vancouver for counsel and encouragement.

"I look at (Locog's) situation now as very positive," said Cobb.

"They're already secured a large number of big sponsors and while it may be tough to sign up anymore this year or the next, they've still got three and a half years. If they can get through this tough spell, they'll be able to enjoy a resurgence of commercial interest in the last year or two.

"Apart from that, my advice to London would be to do as much as they can, as early as they can.

"We've got a year now to run through all kinds of simulations so we can anticipate any problem. I think many organising committees haven't had that luxury because they've been so focused on putting the last nail in the last venue."

So the message from Vancouver is clear: get on with it but don't panic. I agree and like Cobb I think we, and they, will be fine.


  • Comment number 1.

    Excellent article, I hate all the negativity that has already engulfed London 2012. This is a once in a life time opportunity for London to show it's self off as a fantasitc city and for the British public to enjoy the games without the cost of travelling and staying abroad. Whilst China was extravegently run and certainly a success, the atmosphere at many of the events was poor. I think that if the public and politicians ditch all their negativity and really get behind the Olympics then London 2012 could be a massive advertisment for our country and an opportunity to showcase our passion for a variety of sports.

  • Comment number 2.

    Canadians are lovely people. Vancouver is the best city in the world. The games will go off without a hitch! The amount of tickets already sold just shows the passion the Canadians possess.

    If only we were so lucky here in England.

  • Comment number 3.

    I don't know who wrote this, but Whistler is a long way from the "rockies" !!!

  • Comment number 4.

    As a transplanted Canadian who grew up in Vancouver and lived through Expo '86, and who lived in Calgary in '88, I can state that, if run properly, the Olympics can not only be a 'feel good' event but also one that leaves both a positive athletic and financial legacy.
    Planning is key as well as community involvement - the winter olympics lend themselves more readily to the latter for sure due to their modest size but if the Olympics are seen as a 'top-down' exercise, they will not be supported... Give people a reason to care, to get excited, and simply to have some fun and the event will go off well. As for the legacy, the sporting venues are more likely to be lasting than any attempt to generate housing or social change. The latter will require a lot more than simply an Olympics. or an 'Expo'.
    Vancouver will be a very good place to be in 2010 (I intend to be there) & hopefully I'll be able to say the same about London 2012!

  • Comment number 5.

    The Rockies are about 12 hours that way > of Whistler and the best city in the world.

    Cracking journalism!

  • Comment number 6.

    Well done, Adrian and Chouie you spotted my intentional geographical mistake. The rest of you should be ashamed of yourselves as everybody knows Whistler is a ski resort in the southern Pacific ranges of the Coast Mountains. Or at least they should know now.

  • Comment number 7.

    It's a little bit of cheating to compare ticket sales between Canada for a Winter Olympics and anywhere else... simply because Canada not only will fill 20,000-seat arenas for men's hockey, but will also do so for (some) women's hockey. When you're selling out an arena twice as large as that which hosted hockey in Utah, it's not too tough to best them in ticket sales.

    But, yes, the key to staging a fiscally successful Olympics is always to utilise as many existing structures as possible.

  • Comment number 8.

    Of course we can do it!! A bit of faith for 2012 people - in Brits we trust

  • Comment number 9.

    I'd consider Salt Lake a fiscal success. They managed to use a lot of facilities that were already built in the area (Energy Solutions Arena, The E Center, Rice-Eccles Stadium) so that they wouldn't have many white elephants. Considering how downhill that Olympic bid was headed before Mitt Romney headed up the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, and add in September 11th and the economic downturn that followed that it's a wonder how well that went off. Vancouver and London should be fine, especially for the two world-class cities that they are.

  • Comment number 10.

    cubsmatt: Agreed. Utah did a very credible job with the games (and no Canadian will ever speak ill of them due to the double golds).

    Of course, it really does help that all you really need for the Winter games are: (a) a mountain (b) a couple of decent-sized arenas, and (c) snow (and even that may be optional these days). The bloated Summer games are more problematic, as Montreal / Atlanta / Athens / etc. found out.

  • Comment number 11.

    step5555: Absolutely. Heck, Montreal is still paying off the '76 games in the form of cigarette taxes. Athens: enough said. Atlanta did have a lot of corporate support, but they were also able to use a lot of facilities that were already built at Georgia Tech University and the University of Georgia, as well as Fulton County Stadium and the Georgia Dome. It also helps that they were able to convert a lot of the stadia (ex. the Olympic Stadium) for other uses (now Turner Field, home of baseball's Atlanta Braves). By the way, being close to Chicago, who's everybody liking for 2016?

  • Comment number 12.

    Interesting article and very clear. What doesnt come across is the funding structure. Vancouver, is in British Columbia and it is the province that is picking up the tab for the games, mostly the tax payers. The Federal Government in Ottowa was approached for more funding but becase the Prime Minister, Mr Stephen Harper (who just closed parliament in December because he was about to be out voted by a coalition of the recently elected parties who oppose him) said NO, it is British Columbians who will have to pick up the tab. As it happens, the province is not doing too badly considering the global melt down. We are looking forward to the torch arriving in October, starting at the provinces capital of Victoria. Please come and enjoy.


    p.s I think the games should have been held in the Kootenays, Nelson and Whitewater would have been oerfect!!!

  • Comment number 13.

    Canuckchuck: How about a multinational bid? Detroit/Windsor 2020. Lord knows Detroit needs it right now.

  • Comment number 14.

    Morning all, or good night if you're still reading in BC, thanks for your comments, particularly the geographical pointers. That's the problem with big countries, little mistakes can make you look very silly. Nobody would mind if somebody confused the Cotswolds with the Chilterns.

    Anyway, here are some thoughts from me:

    questionable1 and not again ole - I couldn't agree more. I can get very annoyed about that facet of the British personality: the knee-jerk nimbyism, the paucity of imagination, the default distrust of our ability to get things done.....what would the Victorians think?!?

    As I've written before, I'm very pro-London 2012. I'm excited about what it can do for London, this country and, most of all, British sport. That said, I've got a job to do and that includes holding everybody connected to the project to account. Mistakes will be made - there have been a few already - and I intend to point them out/call for changes whenever I spot them. But when that happens I'll be inside the tent peeing out, as opposed to being outside the tent peeing in.

    WillGill99 and Doodler57 - You make good points about Canada and Vancouver, a truly smashing city, blessed with its location. Doodler's remarks about the size of the Winter Games and the use of existing venues, especially the sporting ones, are also very sensible.

    step5555 - you're right, comparisons between Olympics are always a little flakey but I mentioned Salt Lake City's figures as those are the ones Dave Cobb gave me. Apparently Vanoc likes to base its numbers against SLC as it sees closer comparisons between the two cities than Vancouver and Turin, Nagano or Lillehammer. But I notice Vancouver's metro area is 2.5 times bigger than SLC's so perhaps the ticket sales numbers aren't as striking as they appear at first. But that said, those pre-orders are very impressive. Cobb told me they're toughest job now will be handling the disappointment people will feel for not getting their hockey seats. I also think his point about it not just being hockey tickets that people were chasing was interesting - people just wanted to see something to say they'd been part of the Games. This is a key challenge for the host of a Summer Games. Let's face it, even the sportiest nation in the world isn't going to be completely familiar with every event in the Olympic programme. Selling those wrestling, handball and water polo tickets won't be easy for London (I think they'll do it, though) particularly if there aren't Brits to cheer for. That's where the elite funding issue connects with the success of the Games issue.

    cubsmatt13 - You make excellent points about SLC's success (especially after the early scandals) and also on the issue of venues. I also really like your Detroit/Windsor idea as I used to live in the Motor City but I fear Nubs Nob might not be big enough to stage an Olympic downhill.

    Canuckchuck - You're right to bring up the bill that British Columbian tax-payers will have to pay for the Games. I didn't want to get into this area too much as I was more interested in the what London can learn from Vancouver elements of the story, but yes, it's a typically complex picture (as is the London 2012 story, with lots of confusion over the public £9.3bn budget and Locog's operations budget of £2bn). As I understand it, the infrastructure (the Sea-to-Sky Highway, SkyTrain expansion, the waterfront development etc) and the security bill (the Mounties) is supposed to be a 50/50 split between the province and federal gov. Is this right or has Harper got federal gov off the hook? Your final point, however, suggests to me that the cost to the tax-payer part of Vancouver's story has either been handled well or just hasn't become a huge issue yet. And if that is the case, that's another feather in Vanoc's cap...and an indication of the BC public's appetite for great, life-affirming, inspirational sport! Roll on 2010.

  • Comment number 15.

    i have a solution to Windsor/Detroit's lack of downhill skiing venue, simply pile up all the American cars that no one wants to buy, and all the rubble from the abandoned buildings in Detroit (why not narrow Jefferson Ave by a couple lanes as well and use that mass as well?). et voila! a formidable mountain!

    and what's more, you will be wiping the slate clean for a rejuvenation of the city and (hopefully) the auto industry!

    i'm from Vancouver and am delighted by the positive light being cast on our Games by this article. to be fair though, not all Vancouverites have been as cheery; most of these people have a self-interest in increased social welfare budgets and have been very forward in their attacks on the Games. (anyone who has seen downtown east-side Vancouver can understand their distress. however, it has been shown time-and-again that these social issues of drug-addiction and broken communities cannot be solved by throwing money at them. a successful Games however, will enfranchise many people and do much more for Vancouver than more free Methadone for example.) All this attention and pressure has really put the burner on VANOC to get it right, considering what other initiatives the public could be supporting.

    the point of my ramble is that the right type of criticism can be a good thing. even if you Brits can be a bit dour at times (especially in Scotland, where i temporarily reside(whether they consider themselves 'Brits', of course, is another can of worms)). this is not to say that some of the anti-Games actions haven't been downright criminal and offensive (a tyranny of a few zealots). if LOCOG takes a pro-active and positive stance, is kept accountable, and considers the legacy issues of these infrastructure projects, London 2012 will be as successful as i hope Vancouver 2010 will be.

    also, Matt you are correct about the funding arrangements between Federal and Provincial governments.

    and those ticket sales statistics aren't surprising considering the enthusiasm we Canucks have for hockey (likely incomprehensible to many of you, a discussion for another day) and, for better or for worse, simply getting amongst it en masse, no matter what the crowd may be gathered for.

    (i think i've broken the record for the use of (brackets) in one posted comment. i hope it's legible!)
    best wishes to everyone!

    over and out.

  • Comment number 16.

    Matt, skiing at Crystal Mountain maybe? I was thinking more along the lines of the Summer Games. It would be a great revitalization if you can get some venues inside the city, that could help quite a bit. Maybe do a few facelifts (Joe Louis Arena, probably Ford Field and Comerica Park too by 2020). Plus, you could use facilities at University of Windsor, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and, my school, the University of Michigan. How many other cities can say they have a stadium able to hold 110,000 people (Michigan Stadium) already built? You could do rowing and kayaking on the Detroit River or Lake Huron. I know I'm focusing more on the Detroit aspect, but it got me thinking after San Diego and Tijuana very briefly considered the same for 2016. Canuckchuck: Well, Chrysler owns Fiat now, and if Torino can do it, why can't Detroit? I'm not going to get into politics too much, but working for an auto supplier during the summer, I still love my American car.


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