WHISTLER (Reuters) - When the first Alpine skier leaves the downhill starting hut at the 2010 Olympics it will mark the fruition of a four-decade-old dream at the heart of the founding of this western Canadian resort town.
In 1960 a group of Vancouver businessmen traveled to Squaw Valley, California, which was hosting that year’s Winter Olympics, and returned with the idea of building their own resort to host the Games in the future.
“They said: ‘Hey, if they can do it we know this mountain up the highway from Vancouver’,” said Whistler Mayor Ken Melamed. “In those days to host a Winter Olympics all you really needed was a ski hill.”
The group faced a daunting task. There was no highway to the area, then known as Alta Lake and London Mountain, which was home to little more than summer fishing lodges and logging camps.
The name Whistler is one locals gave the area from the sound made by a local marmot.
“I climbed the mountain, saw the valley, and I was just awe-struck by what was here; the obvious potential. The scale of it was just enormous,” said Gary Watson, one of the founding group, of his first visit in 1961, a time he jokingly calls “BR” -- Before Road.
Located some 125 km north of Vancouver, Whistler today has 9,300 permanent residents. With resort visitors and seasonal workers it boasts an average daily population of some 26,000 people, according to town officials.
Whistler tried unsuccessfully for the Games three times before joining forces with Vancouver in the late 1990s to win these Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) allows only one community to have its name in the title of the event, and so these will be the Vancouver Games.
Whistler will host Alpine skiing, Nordic events, ski-jumping, biathlon, bobsleigh, luge and skeleton. It will also have one of the two athletes’ villages.
The resort town may also play the role of television face of the Games because, unlike Vancouver -- a major city which usually sees rain in the winter -- it will have snow on the ground and fit the stereotypical image of a winter sports village.
“It’s not a role we have been assigned but it’s a role we’re ready to take on if needed,” said John Rae, who has been responsible for organizing Whistler cultural celebrations during the Games.
This is not the first Winter Olympics to split competition venues between a major city and a mountain resort, but this will be the first time some of the formal medals presentations will be divided between the communities.
Support for hosting the 2010 Olympics was not universal.
Melamed actually voted against it when the town’s council was asked to support making a bid in 2002, and says that decision contributed to his easy re-election soon afterwards.
“It wasn’t that I was anti-Olympics but I was expressing a concern on a fairly large section of the community... My biggest fear was that the Olympic machine was so big that we might not have an effective say in it,” Melamed said.
Whistler’s growth has been rapid, but sharply controlled, and officials say they learned from the mistakes of other resort communities that growth must be environmentally and economically sustainable.
“The approach was that the Games needed to fit within the community plan,” said Melamed, adding that the town’s concerns prompted 2010 organizers to adopt sustainability as a major theme for the Games.
Whistler did not require more hotel space for the Olympics and is using its need to build new accommodation for 3,000 athletes and officials to address a long-standing shortage of affordable housing for workers.
“It was built with two criteria in mind: what do the IOC and (local Games officials) want for Games use, but also what do the residents need afterwards,” said Joe Redmond, chief executive of Whistler Development Corp.
Unlike Vancouver, which ran into financing problems in building its athlete housing, Whistler has avoided money problems in building its village, and is paying for nearly all other Olympic preparations with its hotel room tax.
“We have delivered the Games on time, on budget, and there will be no debt (for Whistler),” Melamed said.
Watson admits Whistler was probably not ready to host the Olympics when it made its earlier bids.
“I’ve said at times: ‘My God, I don’t know what we were smoking back then’. It was pretty ambitious if not pretentious,” he told Reuters with a laugh.
Watson hopes visitors and international television viewers will appreciate not just the beauty of the area surrounding Whistler but also the steps taken to protect it as the town grew.
“You look down on this valley, at what is here and how it fits and works. Then close your eyes and think what it was before this happened. I think people will realize what a tremendous accomplishment it is.”
Editing by Clare Fallon