Sunday, 7 March 2010

Postcards from Vancouver

Four long, serendipitous years took me to the 2010 Games. Then in three short weeks the “Games” went by in a flash! There were ups (the climb to position 15 on the Red Course is most notable) and there were downs (the 15-foot drop into “Petra’s Pit” takes the top prize for downers). I had very limited access to the Internet so I had to wait until my return home to post this blog piece.

Warning! I have a lot of photos and videos in the full post, so if you are on a slow connection it may take a while to load!

The Journey

I said the journey to the Games was serendipitous, and it was very much so. When we moved to Halifax from Calgary in 2001, I was used to skiing from November to April. Not so in Halifax! I am lucky if ski season lasts mid-January to mid-March! (The season is slightly longer if you travel to Cape Breton or to New Brunswick.) Some years there would be no ski season if you didn’t ski at Martock, a downhill resort that also had a small XC trail network. They would occasionally make snow for the XC trails, which was often the only skiable snow around. While the trail passes were not cheap, the local club at Martock held some weekend competitions to keep your racing skills sharp. The driving force behind the Martock club was Sue Hill. It was a lot of work for her to organize and run those events, so a few of us would pitch in to help her out.

Guy Laviolette popped over from NB and ran a couple of Level 1 and Level 2 Official courses for us. We went on to organize and run a NS Provincial Championship and then an Atlantic Championship as well. We occasionally pitched in to help out the folks up at Cape North with their events.

When the Canada Games Council announced 4 years ago that Halifax would host the 2011 Canada Winter Games, I decided I had better increase my experience and upgrade my certification level. I signed up for my Level 3 certification. Anne, my daughter, had stopped racing a couple of years prior and was helping out with the races we were running. Since she had already reached her Level 2, she decided to do her L3 at the same time I did.

Off we went to Mont Ste. Anne, where one of the guest speakers was Rob Bernhardt. Rob was the Chief of Competition for XC at the 2010 Games and he spoke about the site (Callaghan Valley), the preparation they were doing to host the Games, and the people they would need to help run the competition. Thinking this was another great step in getting more experience, both Anne and I applied as volunteers for the XC competition venue.

After the L3 I worked a number of other events, including a NorAm Cup in Val Cartier. I was impressed with how very organized the race committee was and how smoothly the event ran. The level of skiing was a big step up from what I had been used to working as an official. My blog posts from the NorAm are here, here, and here.

I got word that I was on track for the Games and I proceeded to work ‘warm-up’ events such as the 2008 Canadian National Championships and the 2009 World Cup. The Nationals were chaotic with lots of teams, lots of skiers, and lots of events. The World Cup event was much smaller, but the level of competition was noticeably higher. Here is Kikkan Randall of the U.S. in one of the sprints where "first across" is all she needs to win, yet she is driving hard across the line even though no-one is even in the finish corridor behind her.

These events were also good practice for standing out in the elements watching and waiting for something to happen, quite unlike the role of a Chief of Competition or a Technical Delegate!

The Ship

The journey to the games may have been serendipitous, but it was also expensive. I spent about $5,000 from the time I signed up for my Level 3 course to the time I booked my flight to Vancouver for the Games. The cost for Anne was about the same, so our family participation in the Games certainly came at a price! Fortunately, once I was finally on site, my room and board were taken care of by VANOC. I was put up on an old cruise ship, the Mona Lisa, which was anchored at the Squamish Terminal.

If you are like me, when you hear ‘cruise ship’, you think SCORE! Well, it wasn’t quite a “score”. I had to carry two bags, a ski box, and my camera gear up the gangway myself. There were no ‘porters’ to help with the load! The rooms were very small, and I shared my cabin with Ed and Mike. Three guys with ski gear sharing a small room like this was a bit tight.

Security was a bit of a pain. There was Terminal security, which prevented anyone from entering or leaving unless on a certified vehicle, there was VANOC security, which verified accreditation and ship pass, and then ship security which did “mag and bag" as well as log you “shipside” or “dockside” with your ship pass. The only way off the ship was on a VANOC shuttle, which ran every half-hour. Ed pointed out that the brewpub at the end of the Terminal road was only a 10-minute walk from the ship, yet we often had to wait 30 minutes for a bus. Hmmmm…

The amenities of the ship were very, very limited. There was no Internet, no swimming pool, no treadmill, and no clean air. Smokers would often light up in their cabins, and since the ship was on a single air circulation system, the smoke quickly spread everywhere.

The upside of the ship was that the price was very right (free!), the food was passable, and when the sun was out the view of Squamish harbour and Squamish Falls was fabulous.

Ed is from Lab City and I had met him before at the warm-up events. As fate should have it, we missed each other by about a year at MUN where we both skied with Frank O’Conner and crew. I had dropped out with a back injury just before Ed started skiing with them. Ed was working the XC venue on the same team as me, so we hung around for most of the Games.

Mike was on the 2006 Canada Olympic Team as a ski jumper. He is doing his Mech. Eng. degree at U of C and didn't have time to stay competitive, but he did land a spot as a ski jump ‘forerunner’. We didn’t see that much of Mike, as his schedule was a bit different and there were a number of the ski jump forerunners staying on the ship as well.

Game On!

The XC events were held in Callaghan Valley, at a venue named “Whistler Olympic Park” (WOP). Along with XC, competitions for biathlon, ski jumping, and Nordic combined were held at WOP. More medals were awarded at WOP (28 medal events!) than anywhere else. There was a lot of press about the poor weather. Most of the reporting was about Cypress Mountain, home of the freestyle and snowboard events. Unlike Cypress, we had a very good snow pack to work with in Callaghan Valley.

The weather during the Games varied quite a bit. We had heavy wet snow on some days.

(Here is the same shot on a clear day)

We had heavy rain on other days.

We had a couple of scorching 15 degrees C (59 F) days!

A lot of the time the temperature hovered near the freezing mark, which meant the “snow line” was often not that far up the hill, as you can see in this shot of the TV helicopter.

The rain and heat took a toll on the course, which meant the groomers often had to “salt” the snow just prior to a race.

Salting meant closing the course to let it set up, which radically altered the training time for the athletes. This prompted Ed to create a motto for WOPer, the Marshal:

"I explain constantly changing rules,
To people who don’t really care,
In a language they don’t really understand"

Security at the venue was tight. There were more police around than I have ever seen in one place (and I used to live next to an RCMP training academy). For them, it was a job and they stuck together, talking only amongst themselves. However, there were a few bright sparks who were very outgoing and spent time talking to the athletes and officials. In addition to the police, the army patrolled the woods, although the only glimpse of them I ever got was of an army helicopter and an Aurora patrol plane. A blimp, similar to the one in Whistler, was deployed and it was said to have all kinds of fancy detection equipment. It probably worked very well on terrorists and elephants, because I saw neither at the venue.

The security provided by the police and the army was pretty tight, but the ICO required even tighter security for unapproved logos. If a logo was from a company that was not an official sponsor, it could not be visible. That meant more than one person making a fashion statement with packing tape!

We were “course crew”, meaning we had “field of play” accreditation. For someone like me who has been skiing since he was 12, this was a big SCORE! It meant being right there with the athletes, the coaches, the wax techs, the industry reps, and the jury, which included ski greats Bente Skari and Vergard Ulvang. Since we were out on course for the unofficial training, for the official training, and for the competitions, we had an opportunity to chat with many of them.

The athletes had a very smooth style and their tempo was very high, as you can see in this clip from the last down hill corners heading back into the stadium:

and also from this clip on one of the downhills during the men's marathon:

To get an idea of the difference in tempo between a warm-up and a race, check out this video where the red skier is just slowly moving along (more at my speed) and the white skier is coming by at race pace:

No discussion of the XC competition would be complete without mention of Petra. She crashed during training for the Women's Sprint competition but she went on to ski the qualifying round in obvious pain and qualified to move on. She then went to the trauma centre where she got checked out by a medical team. She came back and skied the heats and moved on to the semis. She skied the semis and moved on to the finals. She skied the finals and won a bronze medal. Some news reports say that later that night she was diagnosed with cracked ribs and a collapsed lung. It's hard to imagine achieving a bronze medal at the Olympics with cracked ribs and a collapsed lung! Before the Games she claimed in an article that the skiing Gods are against her and she may have been right. is currently carrying the raw video feed on their website, although I am not sure how long it will stay up there. Jump up to about 2:00 to see footage of her crash. Yes, that flash of smurf blue / neon vest behind her is me down in the hole getting her out. At about 18:30 you will see her finish the qualifying round.

Just to give you an idea of how far down she fell, here are a couple of shots of me down in "Petra's Pit". She destroyed both poles and one ski and narrowly missed cracking her head on a big rock at the bottom of the pit. She is one lucky, determined, stubborn woman!

There were a lot of other things to see at the venue besides XC racers and support crew. I was able to take in some of the biathlon events. While the biathletes were not as proficient at skiing as the XC skiers, I found something alluring about a fit, blonde female wearing tight Lycra and carrying a gun that she knows how to use. ;-)

Since our office (an ATCO trailer) was located adjacent to the ski jump hill, I got over to see the action there quite a bit. I saw a lot of the hill in the dark first thing in the morning as their course crew prepared it for the days training or competition.

The officials there are packing the hill to get it ready for the jumpers, as you can see in this close up shot.

I can't resist putting this shot in for the photographers out there. The shooting data: ISO 25600, f4.0, 1/100. Yes, that's right, ISO 25600 from my Nikon D700. The noise is about as bad as from my wife's Canon G7 at ISO 800.

I also got to see some of the jumping. The impact when they land results in a loud “snap” and you can see in this shot how much the skis flex when they land.

I mentioned that Mike was a ski jump “forerunner”. This meant he went down the jump before the competitors and he captured some amazing footage with his helmet cam. Here is one going down on the big hill:

And a “ski view”:

And a "backwards" view:

Besides the sporting events, there were also lots of great snow sculptures at WOP:

There was also a totem pole being carved on site.

The fans also provided lots of colour.

There was the requisite Inukshuk.

All the athletes wanted to have their photo taken with it.

Claudia made her own Inukshuk one morning when the sun was out.

Other Events

I think the worst thing about staying on the ship was having to spend between 2 and 2.5 hours a day on a bus getting to and from work. That was not enjoyable. The absence of official Games activities in Squamish didn't help either. To participate in the extracurricular activities, it was another 4 hours on a bus to Vancouver (and back) or 2 hours on a bus to Whistler (and back). We tried Greyhound, but after buying a ticket 2 hours in advance and then waiting around in the rain only to find out that the bus was full before it arrived. We were not too happy about that. They brought in another bus about 30 minutes later and we managed to get to Vancouver in time to see the curling.

If there was little snow at Cypress Mountain, there was NO snow in Vancouver!

Fortunately, this made waiting in line to go through venue security a bit more bearable.

The curling fans were all dolled up, which should have been a foreshadowing of the noise they were going to make when they got inside. They would yell and cheer or even "boo" during key shots. These were not your parent’s curling fans and they added a whole new dimension to the "roaring" game!

Once I was inside and settled in my seat, I found it remarkable how the VANOC logo was everywhere

as were the TV crews.

In fact, I will go on a little tangent about the TV coverage.

Most of the focus on the Games was about coverage and TV coverage especially. Coach zones (or more correctly, the NO COACH zones) were set up primarily to give the cameras unobstructed view of the athletes. Now, this is fine in my books, but what was not okay was how the camera crews set up right on the field of play. In the case below, a crew placed their snow mats right out in the skate zone. I convinced them to move them back on the pretext of getting a better shot, but you can see from the ski marks in the snow that the skiers were coming right up onto the mats before they were moved. Not only would this have slowed them down during a race, it would have really ruined their day if they also hit the cameraman.

The camera crews carried their cameras attached to their body, which really added to their mass. I think a skier would have just bounced off them in a collision. The contraption that enabled the camera to be carried this way was pretty cool, though.

In other cases, the cameras were mounted on skidoos.

Sometimes they were strung high overhead.

Some cameras were on little robots in the stadium.

The commentators themselves took up valuable seats, such these that were at the hockey venue. I wondered why they didn’t put the commentators in a trailer outside of the venue and let them work from TV feeds. After all, that’s how their customers get to see the Games and the TV crews were often outdoors anyway. Not to mention the fact that there was a lot of lost revenue in those seats!

All of these cameras were there to provide the best coverage for the TV viewer and to make them feel like they were right there on the field of play. The video also certainly helped fans in the stadium, as most of the events had huge TV’s that allowed them to keep track of the competition just as if they were home in their living rooms!

One of the most watched events on TV was men's hockey and I scored tickets to the first Canada – US men’s hockey game, courtesy of NSBI. While the outcome was not what I was looking for, the excitement and noise level inside the stadium far exceeded any NHL game I have ever attended. It was awesome. Most of the fans were Canadian, although there were some token Americans. There were also some athletes sprinkled in, such as these Swedes.

I was impressed by the fitness of the hockey officials. If they made doing ‘the splits’ a requirement for XC Officials, then I would never had made the Games!

While I was in Vancouver for the hockey game, I was able to scoot around and take some shots of the city, including the cauldron. There were a lot of people looking to get close to the flame.

The flame was behind a chain link fence, which made it a bit of a challenge to shoot.

The line up for the official viewing platform was a three-hour wait.

I didn’t want to wait that long, so I just shot through the “official camera gap” that VANOC had put in the fence.

As I wandered the streets, I noticed there were huge line-ups for everything. There was a 3-hour line up to the Canadian Mint exhibit, where you could have your photo taken with one of the official gold medals. There was also a 3-hour line up to get into the Hudson Bay store to buy souvenirs! Like me, not everyone was interested in the long line-ups, so people were either buying or trading pins,

or playing with the street art.

The only other event I was able to attend was the closing ceremonies. The timing of the ceremonies was such that I arrived in Vancouver just as the men’s hockey gold medal game was in the end of the third period. I came upon a crowd on the sidewalk watching the game on a TV though a bar window, so I watched the rest of the game with them. When Sid scored, I swear you could hear the whole city roar. Certainly these guys inside the bar were happy campers.

From the bus stop to BC Place was a 30-minute walk and it was the most amazing 30-minute walk of my life. I was in Paris when Les Blues won the FIFA World Cup on home soil and that was certainly something. Seeing the Champs-Élysées full of people was quite the sight. But Paris is a city of 12 million, whereas Vancouver may have a population of 3 million people, at best. This video by BC Tourism is a good indication of what it was like.

The Canadian flag was ubiquitous! Walking toward BC Place it could be seen everywhere! This was so "un-Canadian", yet everyone was pretty happy about it, including me.

Even the traffic signs reflected the national mood.

People were hanging out of windows

and even off the top of BC Place. All were joyously waving the Canadian flag.

When I finally got inside, I discovered that all of the seats were covered in plastic bags, making the normally dull blue seats all bright and shiny.

The bags contained an "audience participation kit". Ben Mulroney and Tamara Taggart hosted a “pre-game show” and took us through the kit.

There were lots of interesting items in the kit, including moose antlers. These were pretty popular with the younger crowd!

The kit also contained a light blue poncho for us to wear during the ceremonies. It made me uncomfortably warm, although it did serve a purpose. When light was projected onto the ponchos, images such as flags were formed. However, one had to view the images from a distance to realize what they were.

It made wearing the poncho a bit more bearable knowing I was part of the display! Pretty cool!

The Russians had a chance to present their upcoming Games in Sochi and while I liked the ballet and the symphony, I found the “zorbs” just plain weird.

Neil Young’s performance was great.

I also liked Catherine O'Hara’s entrance as a curling stone!

The “cultural icons” of tabletop hockey, Mounties, and maple leaves were a hoot.

When the ceremonies were over, I made my way back to the bus stop for the return to Squamish. All along the way the street party was still in full swing.

That brought my time at the Games to an end. Anne was about to fly out to work the Paralympic Games in a sort of "Campbell-VANOC workforce relay." I hope they are as much fun for her as these Games were for me!

Now that it is all over, I have a few people to thank. Thanks to Sue for the opportunity to work a race from a perspective other than a racer. Thanks to Keith and Mark for making the early races so much fun to work. Thanks to Linda for the opportunity to expand my experience. Many, many thanks to Trish for her patience, for her support, and for letting me use up all of my vacation these past 4 years in the cold frozen north and not in her preferred sunny, warm, tropical resort!

A complete slide show of my Games photos is here. The quality of the photos varies quite a bit, since I was shooting with what ever I had at hand: my Blackberry; Trish's G7; or my D700. I know everyone will accept the quality for what it is; after all, the best camera is the one that you have with you!

EDIT: to make things easier, I have embedded the slide show below. The photos in the embedded show are smaller, so if you want to see them full size, click on the link above.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.


Anonymous said...

Stunning. Thanks for taking time to recount the experience and for sharing your beautiful pics.

Bonz said...

Great pictures and interesting insights, Scott. Thanks so much!

Richard and Debbie said...

Scott - I'm embarrassed to tell anyone I have a blog now that I've seen yours. What a wonderful reliving of our shared experience right from that Level III course, to Nationals, to the World Cup and finally the Olympics. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and both Richard and I hope to see you again at another event or when we visit NS. Who knows...maybe we'll help in 2011!


paula said...

Wow. Those pictures are magazine quality. How did you ever get your gear up the ladder/stairs?

Thank you so much for sharing this.... that must have been the ride of a lifetime. kudos.


Sherry Lang said...

Great Blog & Photos...thanks for sharing your experience.