In the live-from-New York special he filmed last year for HBO, comedian Robin Williams launched into an extended riff about Canada and the Winter Olympics and made it sound as if there’s no there there up beyond the United States.
Canada, he said, “is like a loft apartment over a really great party.”
As the International Olympic Committee gathers here to vote Wednesday on the site of the 2010 Winter Games, all indications are that the party may well be headed north to Canada -- and west to Vancouver, maybe even in a laugher of an election.
Vancouver is running against only two other cities, Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea. For reasons as diverse as the 2012 Summer Games selection two years from now to Vancouver’s undeniable beauty and cosmopolitan appeal to a bid based on a projection of Canadian identity and solidarity, it has emerged in recent weeks as the choice to beat. Some even predict a first-round win.
Others, however, say Vancouver is by no means a lock and note that nothing in the IOC can ever be considered a certainty, particularly in the often-volatile first round of an election.
Vancouver, they note, must overcome a range of issues that tend to surface in the intensely personal, occasionally petty and frequently nationalistic mix that is IOC politics -- among them, a lingering resentment in some quarters aimed at longtime Canadian IOC member Dick Pound of Montreal and, separately, at the awarding at last year’s Salt Lake City Games of duplicate gold medals to Canadian pairs skaters.
As Paul Henderson, an IOC member who lives in Toronto, put it late last week, “Vancouver is going into the last [few] days in the lead. Can they make it to the finish line?”
In many ways, the election Wednesday serves as prelude to the selection of the 2012 Summer Games site, and of all the complex factors that go into the picking of the 2010 city, none is more complicated than trying to divine how -- or even if -- the 2012 race will end up deciding who gets 2010.
The 2012 race has attracted a lineup of world-class cities, including New York, London, Paris, Madrid and Moscow. Other 2012 candidates include Leipzig, Germany; Havana; Istanbul; and either Sao Paolo or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. If Vancouver loses, Toronto may enter the 2012 contest.
All things being equal, the IOC prefers to rotate the Games among continents. In 1996 the Summer Games were held in Atlanta. In 2000 the Games were in Sydney. In 2004 they will be in Athens. In 2008 they will be in Beijing.
If Rio de Janeiro, for example, is ready, it could be a formidable 2012 candidate; the IOC has never held the Summer Games in South America (or Africa). Rio will play host to the 2007 Pan American Games. But the IOC will select the 2012 site in 2005 -- two years before the Pan Am Games test whether the Brazilian economy, security apparatus and other infrastructure is up to the gargantuan enterprise that is the Summer Olympics.
If South America is out of the mix, then for reasons of geographical rotation, North America, meaning New York, would appear to have an advantage. But the IOC is dominated by European members -- 58 of the current 124 members are from Europe -- and with at least five European cities in the 2012 race, there is ample sentiment among the dominant bloc to bring the Summer Games back to Europe.
Thus -- in what is perceived to be a shot at the 2012 chances of New York and Toronto -- Vancouver would get the benefit of considerable European support for 2010.
That, at least, is the theory, and it has the Salzburg team, for one, concerned.
“This question of 2010, 2012, different regions, seems to be very important,” said Egon Winkler, head of the Salzburg bid. “I’m not saying that because I like it. If it plays a really big role, it’s not favorable for Salzburg. It is a question of mathematics.”
A contrary view, one favored by the Salzburg contingent, is that the European members can have it all -- 2010 and 2012. And why not? The Games will be in Europe for both Summer and Winter in 2004 and 2006, in Athens and then Turin, Italy. The Winter Games went to Europe twice in a row in the 1990s -- in Albertville, France, in 1992, and Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994.
IOC member Patrick Hickey of Ireland, the secretary general of the European Olympic Committees, said, “The reality of life is that Europeans want to see as many Olympic Games in Europe as possible. That’s our mandate. That’s our motto. That’s life.”
Dan Doctoroff, head of the New York bid, said it matters not to New York’s bid who wins for 2010.
“Our view always has been that we’re agnostic as to who wins 2010,” he said. “The IOC in its collective wisdom will make its best choice, and it won’t affect our strategy at all.”
Even if the 2012 piece weren’t part of the puzzle, Vancouver would still be the favorite owing to other trends.
In recent years, the IOC has made clear it prefers big cities for the Winter Games. The Games last year were in Salt Lake City; Turin is also a relatively big city.
Moreover, the IOC has a history of awarding Games as a makeup for past losses. Salt Lake, for example, won for 2002 after losing for 1998. Athens won for 2004 after losing for 1996. Toronto has twice in recent years put up bids on Canada’s behalf -- for the 1996 and 2008 Summer Games. It lost both times.
And from the Canadian perspective, Vancouver’s bid is very much Canada’s bid, a way to tell a distinctly Canadian story at a time when Canada has increasingly been attempting to distinguish itself from the U.S. on the world stage.
Perhaps most striking, Prime Minister Jean Chretien opted earlier this year to keep Canada out of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.
“I don’t think that the Canadians think they’re a 51st state,” Henderson said. “We think we’re different.”
The Vancouver bid slogan: “It’s our time to shine.” The Vancouver message: a marriage of sport and culture in an unambiguously Canadian package. The Vancouver novelty: the opening ceremony indoors for the first time at a Winter Games, at 55,000-seat BC Place.
John Furlong, president of the Vancouver bid, said: “Part of what we set out to do was become Canada’s bid ... have the whole country embrace [it]. Today, as far away as Newfoundland, support is as strong as on our own doorstep. We’ve tried to make that a meaningful thing, tried to make the concept so powerful in terms of the long term that people stand up and say, ‘I get it.’ ”
For Vancouver to triumph, however, it must overcome several issues.
For one, events at a Vancouver Games would be split between venues in Vancouver itself and up in the mountains, near Whistler. The road linking the two, the Sea to Sky Highway, is narrow and some 90 to 120 minutes away.
On a visit there earlier this year, Norway’s Gerhard Heiberg, the head of the IOC’s evaluation commission, said it was “too far.” The evaluation report said the distance “could be a challenge” but declared confidence that Olympic “transport requirements can be met.”
Earlier this year, voters in Vancouver were asked in a referendum whether they wanted to have the Games. Roughly 64% said yes. Some in the IOC, however, are put out by the bother of being judged via referendum; unclear is how many and how put out.
More problematic is the duplicate gold medals awarded to Canadian skaters David Pelletier and Jamie Sale after a judging scandal at the 2002 Games. Asked one influential insider, speaking on condition of anonymity: “If this was the same event, with the same conditions, the same judges, the same wrongdoing and it had occurred in Russia, not North America, without the pressure of the press, would the second gold medal have occurred?”
Perhaps even more problematic still for the Canadians is Pound, who in certain Olympic circles is admired and respected -- and in others, not. Pound ran for the IOC presidency in 2001 and finished third. Thereafter, he resigned from a variety of IOC commissions and concentrated on his role as head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which is based in Montreal.
At an Olympic meeting last month in Madrid, several influential figures suggested that WADA might be overreaching in its aggressive campaign to stop athlete doping. The remarks were clearly directed at the scope of Pound’s influence, offered for public consumption as protests aimed at WADA.
Asked whether his connection to a Canadian bid might prove disruptive to Vancouver, Pound said, “It would be disappointing in the extreme if IOC members were to make such an important judgment based on such a stupid criterion.”
One longtime IOC insider added it all up and declared, “The Canadians can’t win.”
If the Canadians falter, the Salzburg plan calls for the construction of a stadium over the shallow Salzach River in central Salzburg. It envisions the use of such famous sites as the Hahnenkamm in nearby Kitzbuhel for the men’s downhill. And with security always a priority for the IOC, Salzburg Mayor Heinz Schaden rarely misses a chance to assert that his city is “the most beautiful and safest international city in the world.”
Pyeongchang, meantime, arrives with the enthusiastic backing of the South Korean government -- capital costs are estimated at $3 billion -- and the allure of promoting peace along the Korean peninsula.
“I have a vision and a dream,” said Kim Jun Sun, governor of Gangwon province, where Pyeongchang is located. “The dream [is] to lift the barbed wires having separated us these past 57 years.”
Pyeongchang remains the unknown, however, in the race -- most IOC members have not been there and know almost nothing about it, and even some usually reliable experts are at a loss to predict how many votes Pyeongchang can really get. Longtime IOC member Kim Un Yong of South Korea has been enlisted to help.
Each city gets about an hour Wednesday to make its case to the full IOC. On hand will be a bevy of Olympic legends, among them skier Hermann Maier, the “Hermannator,” a 1998 gold medalist who will be shilling for Salzburg, and the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, who will be part of the Vancouver pitch.
Austrian TV will broadcast live from Prague for five straight hours Wednesday afternoon; the South Korean contingent here numbers 240, including 100 journalists, and big-screen TVs are going up in Korea for thousands to watch -- even though the announcement of the winner is scheduled for 12:30 Thursday morning, Korea time.
If Vancouver prevails, let the Canadian version of a “really great party” begin.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
FAVORITE: VANCOUVER, CANADA
* Population: 2 million; Whistler, 10,000.
* Previous Olympics in Canada: (2) Summer Games in Montreal 1976, Winter Games in Calgary 1988.
* Major sports events: 1994 Commonwealth Games (Victoria), 1999 Pan American Games (Winnipeg), 2001 World Track and Field Championships (Edmonton), World Cup ski races, other winter and summer events.
* Pros: IOC trend for geographical rotation after 2004 and 2006 Games in Europe and 2008 in Asia; best review of three bids in IOC report on technical merits; beauty of coastal city; Whistler’s scenic setting and reputation as one of North America’s top winter resorts.
* Cons: Concerns over road connecting Vancouver with Whistler, about 90 miles to the north; U.S. interests hoping Vancouver loses to give New York chance for 2012.
* Status: Favorite.
Details of Vancouver’s bid for the
2010 Winter Olympics:
* Where: Events would be held in Vancouver, a city of 2 million people nestled in mountains on Canada’s western coast, and the Whistler ski resort about 90 miles to the north.
* Cost: Organizers estimate an $850-million price tag to stage the Olympics, covered by revenue from broadcast rights, sponsorships, ticket sales, licensing fees and the sale of some assets after the games. They say the Olympics would generate $7 billion in direct economic activity.
* Facilities: Half the required sports venues, including the main Olympic stadium and ice hockey arena, already are built. New facilities planned include a curling rink and a winter sports complex at the University of British Columbia as an additional hockey venue, with a speedskating oval at nearby Simon Fraser University. Cypress Mountain, among the peaks that provide Vancouver’s spectacular backdrop, would play host to freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. Alpine ski events would take place in Whistler, with a Nordic center built for biathlon, cross-country, Nordic combined and ski jumping events.
* Getting around: The British Columbia government has pledged $400 million to upgrade the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler by widening almost all of it to at least three lanes. Officials estimate 43,000 people would travel the highway each day of the Olympics, with the third lane alternating directions at peak periods. A fleet of 700 buses would transport 70% of Olympics spectators to Whistler, with police restricting travel on the highway to approved vehicles. Other ideas under consideration include a high-speed ferry service between Vancouver International Airport and the town of Squeamish, halfway up the highway. Passengers would continue to Whistler by bus.
From Associated Press
Other cities considered for the 2010 Winter Olympics
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA
* Population: 50,000.
* Previous Olympics in Korea: (1) Summer Games in Seoul 1988.
* Major sports events: (Korea) 2002 soccer World Cup, co-host with Japan; Asian Games of 1986 and 2002; (Pyeongchang), Alpine World Cup ski races, 1999 Winter Asian Games.
* Pros: Winter Games have never been held in an Asian country other than Japan; sentiment that Olympics could serve as catalyst for peace and reconciliation on Korean peninsula; strong government backing.
* Cons: Lack of international recognition and visibility; nuclear tensions with North Korea; 2008 Summer Games will be in Asia (Beijing).
* Status: Outsider.
* Population: 150,000.
* Previous Olympics in Austria: (2) Winter Games in Innsbruck, 1964 and 1976.
* Major sports events: World Cup ski races, as well as bobsled, luge, ski jump and other international winter events; Austria will be co-host of Euro 2008 soccer championship with Switzerland.
* Pros: Strong winter sports tradition and experience in playing host to winter competitions; picture postcard Alpine setting; steeped in culture and history.
* Cons: Proximity to 2006 Winter Games across the border in Turin, Italy; European preference for bigger prize of 2012 Summer Olympics.
* Status: Probably second to Vancouver.
*--* Candidates Sites in the running to be host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics: * Pyeongchang, South Korea * Salzburg, Austria * Vancouver, Canada Process: IOC members vote by secret ballot; city receiving majority of votes wins. If there is no winner on first ballot, city with fewest votes eliminated and second round of voting takes place