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Canada set to go for gold

Somehow, despite a global meltdown and a local thaw, the hosts are ready. Vancouver is abuzz, and the stage is set for a Winter Olympics with dazzling settings and story lines.

Bring on Lindsey Vonn, skiing for a slew of gold medals, and the unpredictably intriguing Bode Miller. Anticipate the showdown between Asian figure skaters Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada. Root for, or against, a star-studded Canadian men's hockey team that knows anything less than gold will crush the home-country fans whose passion for a triumphant Olympics grows by the day.

Odds are high that it will rain at times in Vancouver during the Feb. 12-28 run of the games. On Cypress Mountain, in West Vancouver, crews are combatting unseasonably warm, wet weather by trucking in snow to cover the freestyle skiing/snowboarding venue.

But farther north, at the vast ski resort of Whistler, snow abounds on the Alpine courses, and the towering mountains there combine with high-rise, harborside Vancouver to offer perhaps the most stunning mix of scenery ever for a Winter Olympics.

Many of the venues have successfully hosted world-class events over the past few years; the new bobsled/luge track at Whistler has been described as perhaps the fastest in the world.

Canada's Olympic athletes have had full access to the venues for training, part of the Own the Podium initiative that has set the bold goal for the host country to win the most medals at the games. Germany and the United States, which finished 1-2 in Torino four years ago, would love to thwart that goal

Asked what would make these games special for visitors, the CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, stressed the excitement and sense of unity that they are kindling among Canadians.

"Let the world see what good Canadians can do if they work hard and pull together," John Furlong said in a telephone interview. "It's really a coming out event for Canada."

Few if any other host cities have faced such an overwhelming and unexpected crisis as VANOC did the past two years in the form of the global recession.

"We never thought we'd be confronted with an economy that went over a cliff," Furlong said. "We took the company, turned it upside down, shook it, and everything that didn't matter we left out."

Despite staggering financial woes for some of the corporate sponsors, VANOC managed to keep its own budget in order. Ticket sales have been robust, with most events sold out; even the most-hard hit sponsors — including General Motors of Canada — kept their commitments; and the International Olympic Committee has promised to help cover any post-games deficit that might emerge.

One of the biggest victims of the meltdown may turn out to be NBC, which has the U.S. television rights to the games. It expects to lose an estimated $200 million, with advertising revenue not matching the high bid price of $820 million that it committed to in 2003.

The fiscal crisis forced VANOC to become more creative as it trimmed some staff and operational costs without scaling back on the events, festivities and amenities being offered to the Olympic family and the public.

"We had to pay attention to every single tiny thing we were doing," Furlong said. "We didn't lose anything that anyone else will notice."

Now, on the eve of the games, VANOC has declared itself ready to welcome 5,500 athletes and a projected 350,000 visitors. Trendy restaurants and bars in Whistler and Vancouver's Gastown district will be bustling; official entertainment acts include DEVO, Usher and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The influx of visitors will mean some inconveniences. For example, access to Whistler for Alpine events will be strictly controlled, and private cars without parking permits will be stopped at a checkpoint along the 90-mile Sea-to-Sky Highway.

For all events, authorities are advising spectators to arrive at least two hours early to allow time for the screening process.

The security budget for the games, initially projected at $175 million, quintupled to more than $900 million. Personnel will include about 4,500 members of the Canadian military; more than 6,000 police officers, mostly from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but also scores of other Canadian jurisdictions; and 5,000 screeners hired by a private security consortium to conduct searches, under RCMP supervision, of people entering Olympic venues.

"We want to do this in Canadian style — we're subtle but we're ready," said RCMP Cpl. Bert Paquet, a spokesman for the security task force.

For some Vancouverites, there's concern about the hundreds of surveillance cameras being installed, not only at Olympic venues but also in some other crowd-attracting parts of the city.

Richard Smith, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in suburban Burnaby, has helped lead a campaign to ensure that all the cameras — whether operated by the city or the Olympic security team — are dismantled after the games.

"I'm concerned that in the enthusiasm to provide security, people go way over the top," Smith said. "Canadians are fairly anti-surveillance — they like their privacy."

In most of Canada, Olympic fever has been high — notably during the torch relay that began in October. By Feb. 12, it will have passed through more than 1,000 Canadian communities — from major cities to Arctic hamlets — over a 28,000-mile route.

Not all Canadians are enthralled, of course. Some activists from Canada's aboriginal communities have viewed the games as a chance to press political grievances, and on a couple of occasions protesters prompted changes in plans for torch relay legs through native areas.

A rallying cry of these protesters was "No Olympics on Stolen Land" — a reference to the fact that in much of British Columbia, unlike other provinces, treaties were never completed to address the takeover of land by white settlers.

However, the prospect of serious friction diminished once VANOC established official partnerships with the four First Nations whose traditional territories overlap the vast Olympic zone.

Another challenge for organizers has been dealing with Vancouver's skid-row neighborhood — the Downtown Eastside — an area just a few blocks from the city center that abounds with run-down rooming houses, drifters and drug addicts. Prostitutes from the area were the main targets of serial killer Robert Pickton, serving a life prison term after being charged in 2002 with the deaths of 26 women.

VANOC and an array of civic leaders depicted the Olympics as a chance to uplift the Downtown Eastside, pledging to promote new affordable housing, provide jobs for inner-city residents and patronize local businesses. Some activists say more should have been spent to combat homelessness and predict the end result will be gentrification that displaces many down-and-out residents.

Overall, residents of Greater Vancouver have displayed an understandable ambivalence about some aspects of the games. Many are wary of the transportation plan that will curtail driving into downtown, and one recent poll indicated that British Columbians — more so than residents of other provinces — are apt to think that too much money has been spent on the games.

Furlong said he understood why some Vancouverites might have curbed their Olympic enthusiasm to a greater degree than other Canadians but senses a change as the opening ceremony approaches.

"The debates all took place here," he said. "The whole city has had to do all the work, the planning, and by the time the games start, they might have a different view."

"The community has lived it," he added. "Now they can enjoy the fruits of their labor."