Anxiety and anticipation in the air as Whistler prepars for Winter Olympics

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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WHISTLER, B.C. - While anticipation is building, there is also a sense of apprehension hanging in the crisp mountain air as Whistler prepares itself for the Winter Olympics.
The bright smiles of business owners hide the anxiety. Will the Games bring the blizzard of money they had banked on?
"I hope we are busy enough to make back all the money we've lost this year so far," Brenton Smith, general manager of a string of restaurants, said Monday.
The five restaurants Smith oversees have seen a 15 per cent drop in business so far this season. Overall, Whistler's occupancy is down around 10 per cent.
He blames the drop on fallout from the economic meltdown and "Olympic aversion."
While Smith talked, he pasted a new menu into a showcase in front of Labosca, one of the eateries he operates in the village square. In the Olympic spirit, all the prices have been jacked up 10 per cent.
Higher. Faster. More expensive.
Will that be enough to compensate for the slow season?
"I highly doubt it," Smith said. "It's almost impossible at this point right now."
If Smith is a glass-half-empty kind of guy, Charmaigne Issa drinks from a tumbler full of optimism.
While Issa admitted business was "sporadic" this winter, she sees the Olympics as being "100 per cent positive."
"I think it will bring us business not just now, but 15 or 20 years forward," said the manager of Carlbergs Gift Store.
Whistler will host alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping and the sliding sports during the Olympics.
Everything appears ready to go.
The stage in the village square stands empty, waiting for the first act to perform. Behind a fence, covered with Games symbols to keep prying eyes out, the final touches are being placed on the medals plaza. Brightly coloured Olympic banners flutter in the breeze and the furry Olympic Games mascots grin and wave from store windows decorated with red mittens and Maple Leafs.
More than 3,000 journalists and around 2,000 athletes will rub shoulders with tourists and locals.
The town, which has about 10,000 permanent residents, will bulge to around 70,000 a day during the Games.
The hostess at Umberto's said the fine Italian restaurant is fully booked for the weekend.
"Great," muttered a waitress at one of the village's more popular pubs. "We will have a bunch of Europeans who don't tip and a bunch of athletes who don't drink."
When Mayor Ken Melamed talks about the Olympics, he sounds like a father who has been planning his daughter's wedding for five years.
"There is a little sense of impatience," said Melamed, his fingers straying to touch the Olympic torch laying on his desk. "We're ready, mentally prepared.
"In the town, the enthusiasm has been building and it's really at a fever pitch right now."
There was a sense of the calm before the storm on Whistler's streets Monday.
A group of Russian athletes, decked out in their bright red and white uniforms, drew a crowd when they posed for photographs. A bobsled in a plaza attracted giggling children with their parents.
Tourists with maps dodged camera crews doing standup interviews. Locals walked their dogs along the pedestrian malls.
A visible force of RCMP officers kept quiet watch.
"We are confident with our planning to date," said Cpl. Bert Paquet. "Things have been running smooth.
"There are always technical issues and little things that need to be ironed out. But we were here well ahead of time in order to address any kind of issues or problems."
At Issa's store, a toque with an Olympic logo costs $22.50 while baseball caps ranged from $25 to $34.99. A T-shirt would set you back $29.99 while a golf shirt was going for $44.99. A man's vest was $94.99
Stroll over to one of Smith's restaurants and a burger will cost $18 while spaghetti was $20.
People crowded around a booth selling tickets for the women's super-giant slalom race ($85), biathlon ($25), a women's semifinal hockey game in Vancouver ($200) and even the closing ceremony ($775).
There was the usual parade of snowboarders and skiers heading to the lifts, but not as many as you would expect.
That was good news for Ingrid Marie Berling.
The 25-year-old from Norway is a student at the University of British Columbia. She thinks the skiing is going to be great during the Games because a lot of people are staying away from the mountains.
"When people are busy at the venues that will be the best part," said Berling, who admitted to dealing with a hangover from the previous evening.
Sammi Walsh, an Australian living in Whistler, understands why not everyone is happy with the Games coming to town.
Accommodations became expensive. Parking restrictions have hurt local businessmen. Taxi drivers are angry over the free shuttles being offered to journalists and Olympic workers.
"For me, it's kind of exciting," said Walsh. "I don't think I will have the opportunity again to be part of an Olympic spirit.
"Generally, everybody is like 'It's going now so let's get excited and roll with it."'
Brian Brown, who has lived in Whistler 41 years, was more blunt.
"There are always whiners," he said. "I'm glad we got it now.
"I'm glad we didn't get it back in the 1970s. We weren't ready for it. Now is the time."
Melamed thinks bringing the Games to Whistler will pay benefits.
"Our intention of this has always been with a long-term view," he said. "We understand that in the time of the Games, and maybe even leading up to a short period before the Games, is not where you get the win.
"The win is long term. We've been taking that long-term view and asking our local businesses to some degree to be patient and understand this is an investment in the future."
Melamed's warm confidence didn't thaw Smith's concerns.

Organizations: Carlbergs Gift Store, Maple Leafs, RCMP University of British Columbia

Geographic location: Whistler, Vancouver, Norway

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