VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Hundreds of Olympic athletes will converge on Vancouver and Whistler over the next two weeks for competitions to mark the one-year countdown to the 2010 Winter Games.
The arrival of the athletes, many of whom will be back in 12 months chasing their golden dreams, is providing a welcome respite from the doom and gloom of a global economic crisis threatening the Games budget.
It has been a particularly harsh winter for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), trimming costs in an effort to reign in an operating budget that last week rose by C$127 million to C$1.75 billion ($1.42 billion).
VANOC and taxpayers are also bracing themselves for another bill this week when the Olympic security budget is expected to be announced.
The original security costs for the Games were set at $175 million but Chief Superintendent Bud Mercer, the man in charge of the 2010 Integrated Security Unit, recently suggested the budget would be closer to $1 billion.
Despite the belt-tightening and hand-wringing, there are plenty of parties and celebrations planned to help lighten the mood as the one-year countdown begins on February 12 in the presence of International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge.
"We are in the paper every day, either good or bad, but it (the Olympics) is definitely on the minds of people," Tim Gayda, VANOC vice-president of sports, told Reuters.
"When we bring these events in, the focus goes back to what the Games are all about which is sport.
"Most of these events are free, or a lot cheaper than Games time, so it's a great opportunity for people who weren't able to get a Games ticket to come and see largely the same athletes in the same venues."
Those seeking a taste of the Olympic experience will not lack for choice.
Some of the world's best figure skaters, including the two early favorites for the women's gold, Japan's Mao Asada and Korean Kim Yu-na, will be in Vancouver for the Four Continents.
Men's and women's skeleton and bobsleigh competitors will get their first try at the Whistler Sliding Center, described as one of the fastest and most technical tracks ever built, during a week of World Cup competition.
Freestyle skiers, including the newest sport on the Olympic roster, ski-cross, will compete at Cypress Mountain this weekend before the snowboarders take over the spotlight for a World Cup competition from February 12-15.
Volunteer and security forces will also be part of the test events.
Over 1,000 members of the Canadian military, local police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police will take part in "Exercise Silver," designed to test the security forces' ability to respond to crisis situations including terrorist attacks.
Editing by Rex Gowar