VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - As Vancouver prepares to start the one-year countdown to the 2010 Winter Olympics organizers are increasingly aware that the global financial crisis will put them under extra pressure.
Last year, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) distracted by human rights issues in China and then the world captivated by the glossy Beijing Olympics, scant attention was paid to the 2010 Winter Games as Vancouver’s preparations remained on course and on budget.
Now the Olympic spotlight has shifted, just as the economic crisis bites, turning what the Vancouver organizing committee (VANOC) had hoped would be a glorious sprint to the finish into a tip-toe through a financial minefield.
“I think the year ahead will be tenfold more challenging than any year we’ve had before,” John Furlong, CEO of the committee, told Reuters ahead of Thursday’s one-year milestone.
”When Beijing was over it was as if this giant microscope in the sky just switched and pointed itself on Vancouver. We could feel this immediate pressure that we are next up.
”You start to realize what all these deadlines mean. We know precisely to the second when the opening ceremonies will start and there’s no negotiating that.
”I had hoped that on January 1 we would stop talking about budgets and we could hand our teams all the tools and resources to deliver what they have to deliver and get on with working on the experience of the Games.
”Well, there won’t be a day, an hour, from here until February 12, 2010, that we are not talking about budgets.
“I get up at 4.30 in the morning and the first thing I do every day is listen to the news and every single day it is the same. It’s impacting everyone.”
Certainly Furlong has woken up to plenty of bad news recently.
This month the VANOC chief has been busy trimming costs in an effort to rein in an operating budget that has shot up by C$127 million ($103.5 million) to C$1.75 billion ($1.42 billion).
At the same time, the City of Vancouver has been forced to take over financing of the athletes’ village after cash-strapped developers of the C$1-billion project watched their funding dry up in the withering economy.
City residents are bracing for yet another gigantic Olympic bill to land on their doorsteps, with Games security costs originally projected at $175 million expected to rocket to $1 billion.
The rising costs have sparked grumbling in the Olympic city, recalling Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau’s famous claim that the 1976 Summer Games could no more run a deficit than a man could have a baby.
Thirty years later, Quebec residents finally paid off their Olympic debt.
Vancouver activists and protest groups such as the Olympic Resistance Network are looking to crash the Olympic party and are getting bigger, louder, more organized and more aggressive.
Last weekend, however, Furlong must have worn a big smile as he watched Canadians parade to the podium in test events in British Columbia and at competitions around the world.
From John Kucera’s surprise downhill victory at the Alpine skiing world championships in France to a podium sweep of a men’s World Cup ski-cross event at the 2010 Games venue at Cypress Mountain, Canadian athletes piled up 12 wins, producing performances they hope to repeat a year from now when Olympic medals will be on the line.
If nothing else, the results were a good omen for Canadians who have twice before hosted Olympic Games -- Montreal and the 1988 Calgary Winter Games -- and not won a gold medal.
The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has moved to ensure that the embarrassing drought will end in Vancouver, and has made top spot in the medals table their objective.
Such a lofty goal did not seem impossible on a weekend when Canadian Olympic hopefuls picked up 23 podium places.
“Certainly we are at a point now where it’s not a matter of if we are going to win a gold medal, it’s a matter of when,” Peter Judge, chief executive officer of Freestyle Canada told Reuters.
“We’re going in there with arguably what will be the strongest winter sports team that has ever been put on the field by any country ever in the history of the Winter Games.”
Like the athletes, VANOC faces a heavy workload in the coming year.
Test events being staged this month have exposed numerous kinks that need to be ironed out.
Transportation has yet to be tested and as the Games near VANOC will spend more time monitoring the unpredictable weather than the economy.
In three consecutive years from 1996, World Cup races at Whistler resort -- where all the Alpine skiing will be staged -- were canceled because of poor conditions and there is a nagging fear that Mother Nature could once again play havoc with scheduling.
Work continues on the Sea-to-Sky highway that links Vancouver with Whistler but rockslides and the threat of avalanches this winter have left organizers scrambling to make back-up plans should the Olympic Games main transport artery be severed.
Furlong remains optimistic. “Right now the city has got a mild smile on its face and it’s building into something where the city will have this beaming welcoming smile,” said Furlong. “For me every waking moment has been about making this as perfect as it can be.”
Editing Clare Fallon