Excitement for 2010 Olympics builds on both sides of border

By David Chircop and Yoshiaki Nohara, Everett Herald Writers

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VANCOUVER, B.C. — Massive Olympic and Paralympic flags fly from a seven-story flagpole outside Vancouver’s city hall.

On Cambie Street to the west of the Depression-era government building, heavy machinery and jackhammers chip away at a tunnel for a rapid transit rail line that will link the city’s bustling downtown with Vancouver International Airport by late next year.

Construction cranes fill the skyline in the once-gritty southeast False Creek area, where thousands of eco-friendly apartments and shops of the Olympic Village are sprouting skyward.

With the close of the Beijing Games on Sunday, attention is now turning to the Eastern edge of the Pacific Rim, to -Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., where the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held in just 18 months.

"It’s only going to get more exciting," said David Hurford, chief of staff for Vancouver’s iconoclast mayor, Sam Sullivan, the first quadriplegic to lead a Canadian city.

Some of that excitement is spilling across the border to Washington, where tourism officials hope to seize Olympic gold and winter sports fans are gearing up for a mega-dose of hockey, speed skating and free-style skiing.

Tickets for the 2010 games go on sale Oct. 3 for Canadians. U.S. citizens may have to wait to purchase some of the 1.6 million tickets, which range in price from $25 for biathlon events to $1,100 for the best seats at the opening ceremonies.

In the United States, Jet Set Sports and its subsidiary CoSport are licensed to sell ticket and lodging packages as well as individual tickets.

Vancouver will also play host to the 2010 Winter Paralympic games immediately following the Winter Olympics, which will be split between the Vancouver metropolitan area and Whistler.

Sullivan, who has made wheelchair-accessible taxis and buses in his city a priority, was paralyzed in a skiing accident he suffered as a teenager. He is the first mayor of a Winter Olympics host city to fly both the Olympic and Paralympic flags together.

While the Winter Olympic games will last for only 17 days in February 2010, they are triggering long-term investments, including the widening of the Sea-to-Sky Highway connecting Vancouver and Whistler.

After the games, some of the Olympic Village apartments that will house athletes will be converted to public housing. Venues, such as the curling building at Vancouver’s Hillcrest Park and the giant Skating Oval in Richmond, will go back to their cities for year-round recreational use.

British Columbia has committed $580 million for venue development, and cities and the federal government are also pitching in. The operating budget for the Vancouver Organizing Committee is about $1.6 billion.

In the short run, the games are expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors to British Columbia, and pump billions of dollars into the province’s economy.

No one knows exactly how many spectators will attend or how much money they will spend, but officials say attendance should surpass the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, which drew more than a million people. The Vancouver area, with a population of 2.2 million, is the largest metropolitan area to ever host the Winter Olympics.

It will be the third Winter Olympic games Canada has hosted. Montreal hosted the 1976 summer games, and Calgary the 1988 winter games.

While the Winter Olympics draw fewer athletes and less attention than the Summer Olympics, the games are still a major international event. About 10,000 reporters, photographers and other media representatives from 80 countries are expected to attend. A worldwide television audience of 3 billion is expected.

Vancouver city councillor Suzanne Anton, just back from the Olympics in Beijing, said it will be difficult for the city to top the "absolutely spectacular" show put on by China.

Still, she said the city will be wise to focus on making sure events are full and also providing "live spots" or public areas where people can view games on television without purchasing tickets.

Anton said she was struck at how many empty seats there were at some of the competitions she attended.

"When the eyes of the world are on you, when the cameras of the world are on you, we as a city want to make sure we are doing our utmost," she said.

Kristin Jacobsen, a spokeswoman for Washington State Tourism, said it’s unknown to what extent the state will benefit from the games.

Even so, many Washingtonians are gearing up for an increase in visits during what are traditionally slow months for hotels and tourist destinations.

Snohomish County formed a task force called SnoGold 2010 and is trying to have participating teams practice at Comcast Arena and Olympic View Arena in Mountlake Terrace.

"We are already marketing Snohomish County as a gateway to British Columbia," said Amy Spain, executive director for the Snohomish County Tourism Bureau.

In addition to attracting visitors on their way north, Spain said, Snohomish County could be a good place for Canadians who want to avoid hassles during the games.

Confetti from the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics is still being swept away, but there’s talk of making reservations at the Tulalip Tribes luxury hotel, said John McCoy, general manager of Quil Ceda Village, the tribes’ retail and casino complex.

"I know of people who are starting to talk about it," he said.

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., co-chairman of the state’s 2010 Task Force for the Olympics, said Washington has a lot to offer for people who plan to visit the Pacific Northwest during the games, including top-notch ski resorts and a beautiful environment.

The state finished widening I-5 with new carpool lanes in Everett this year partly because of the 2010 Olympics. "We want those games to be successful, and we stand by to help them succeed," Larsen said.

Back in Vancouver on the corner of Hornby and Georgia streets, a giant digital clock is counting down the days and hours until the 2010 games.

At the Vancouver Convention and Exhibition Centre on the city’s harborfront, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on what will be a glass-enclosed international media center during the games.

Olympic banners hang from downtown banks and tourist shops sell kitschy merchandise with the 2010 Olympic Games emblem, a modern interpretation of an Inuit rock guidepost made of stacked rocks in human form.

On Friday afternoon, Jeff Vlug, 39, a construction supervisor who installs railings on high-rise apartment buildings, rode his bike along a new sea wall trail that stretches in front of False Creek condos. Opening ceremonies for the 2010 games will be held at BC Place Stadium, a short distance away.

"If you travel the streets around here, there are more bike paths and more construction expanding the streets," he said. "Vancouver is actually doing a good job."

Before winning its bid to host the games, voters in Vancouver approved a referendum to show the International Olympic Committee public support for the event.

"I have to say I’m one of those nasty people who voted against having the Winter Olympics here," said Dorothy Atkinson, 56. "I was concerned about the cost and everything. But to see the Olympic Village sprouting up over the way there, I’m growing prouder by the moment."