On the Olympic Trail

You don't have to go far in the resort to find evidence of Whistler's recent - Games-tinged - past

by Lisa Richardson

For 17 days in February 2010, a current of electricity charged through Whistler Village, as if a switch was flicked on the previous week - the moment 17-year-old mountain bike phenom Tyler Allison took the torch and lit the Olympic Torch Relay cauldron at the base of Whistler Blackcomb.

During the 17 days of the Games, revellers packed the Village each night - cheering in the backgrounds of live news broadcasts, bumping shoulders with the world's greatest athletes, sporting their countries' colours, grooving to free, live concerts.

The current was at its most palpable when Jon Montgomery, a red-bearded auctioneer from Russell, Manitoba, celebrated his gold medal skeleton run, the first Canadian gold won in Whistler, chugging a pitcher of beer that was handed to him by a happy stranger as he made his way through the press of partiers. The cheer from the thousands of people gathered around massive screens to watch the Canada-vs.-U.S. men's hockey final, when Sidney Crosby finally shot the puck into the goal, after almost eight minutes of tense overtime, could have powered 1,000 heart-starting defibrillating machines.

But with an estimated 3.5 billion television viewers worldwide tuning in to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, a person didn't need to be in Whistler to catch the buzz. Olympic spark-hunters visiting Whistler don't have to look too far to find traces of the biggest sporting event on Earth.

Touch the spark

Whistler's landscape of glacier-etched granite serves as a fitting backdrop for three towering inukshuks, Inuitinspired stacks of rock in human form that serve as guideposts and expressions of welcome throughout the Arctic. The 2010 Olympic emblem, Ilanaaq (the Inuktitut word for friend), represented the hospitality Canada extended to the world. An inukshuk now stands guard at the entrance to Whistler on Village Gate Boulevard. Another welcomes visitors to the mountains, outside the Roundhouse on Whistler Mountain. A third welcomes visitors to the summit of Whistler Mountain at the top of the Peak Chair. The most widely photographed Olympic hotspot, a de facto climbing gym that inspires feats of contortionism as people pose inside the Olympic Rings, is located next to Whistler Olympic Plaza, the site of medals ceremonies during the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Stillness after the shock

The Olympic Opening Ceremony hadn't even begun when the Games' greatest tragedy struck. A luger from Georgia, 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili, was killed during a training run. All in attendance at B.C. Place Stadium silently stood to their feet at the Opening Ceremony when his black-armband-wearing teammates marched into the arena under their flag. In Whistler Village, a spontaneous memorial sprouted on site as visitors left flowers and notes. The Resort Municipality of Whistler created a permanent memorial, located in the heart of the Village, just around the corner from the Olympic Rings, where visitors can still pause in silent respect.

Get pumped on the trail network

Whistler-based planner Paul Mathews of Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners has designed venues for four Olympic Games, but he admits to being particularly proud of the new Nordic Centre in the Callaghan Valley. Indeed, many Whistlerites and ski freaks cite Whistler Olympic Park's network of 70 kilometres of cross-country ski trails and full Nordic skiing facility as the greatest legacy of the Games. The Callaghan Valley's unique location in the coastal snowbelt means it attracts more plentiful and lighter snow than anywhere else in the region. For 30 years, that was a secret that Brad Sills, president of Callaghan Country Lodge, shared exclusively with 22 lodge co-owners and about 300 guests a year. Now, the genie is out. A brand new access road from Highway 99, 11,000-square-foot day lodge with restaurant, rentals, showers, and lessons, puts more than 90 km of trails at the command of first-timers and aspiring Olympians.

Reverberations everywhere

For those willing to follow the clues, chasing the Olympic trail in Whistler offers a host of adventures. Stroll down to the Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa, where a 2007 renovation incorporated custom-designed native art into aluminum panels in the lobby. The art was commissioned from Corrine Hunt, a B.C. artist whose work reflects her Komoyue and Tlingit First Nations heritage. She subsequently designed the strikingly original Olympic medals.

The Bearfoot Bistro installed an ice room for the Games, which remains in place, allowing guests to sample and sip a range of vodkas in the -18 degree Celsius Arctic ambience.

Those less inclined to chase the chill can head to Black's Pub and try to elicit a confession from pub manager David Branigan as to exactly what type of beer was in that pitcher passed to Jon Montgomery after his goldmedal win.

On the mountain, Whistler Blackcomb's Roundhouse houses an exhibit commemorating the Games, featuring the skis worn by men's downhill gold medallist Didier Defago of Switzerland as well as a host of other artifacts.

Or visitors can simply slide over to the iconic Dave Murray downhill run, point their boards straight down and chase the Olympic dream all the way to Creekside, where alpine skiing in Whistler began almost 50 years ago.

You won't be able to straight-run it, but then, great stories never unfold in a straight line. To get the full lowdown on the resort's twisty, turny Olympic journey, visit the Whistler Museum and Archives.

One of three inukshuks welcoming visitors
to Whistler.

Photo: Bonny Makarewicz,
www.picturewhistler.com