Vancouver gets set for the 2010 Winter Olympics – all it needs now is snow

Canadian hosts are praying for a cold snap to save skiing and snowboarding events, reports David Usborne
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The Independent Online

Ask anyone who has staged an Olympic Games and they will tell you that to make it all happen will mean moving mountains. But no one told the folks over in Vancouver that sometimes you have to move mountains of snow and – if you are really unlucky – there is always the slimmest chance of a whole mountain going bankrupt.

And so it is in lower (soggy) British Columbia with barely three weeks to go before the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games. One hill, just outside Vancouver, is all mud and grass with little sign in the forecast of colder weather coming. The other, mighty Whistler Mountain, which will hold the blue riband ski race events, is facing foreclosure and the likelihood that it will be auctioned off to the highest bidder as the Olympics are under way.

The risk of a serious snow deficit at Cypress Mountain was always there. The resort, which is due to hold freestyle skiing and snowboard events, has the advantage of proximity to downtown Vancouver – you can reach it by city bus – but the downside is its paltry elevation. A cold snap around now would have been nice, though. At the very least temperatures below zero at night would have allowed for snow-making.

But with no help from Mother Nature at all, organisers are now falling back on their least-preferred option: moving huge quantities of snow from the higher elevations of Cypress, which are white, to the lower levels in fleets of lorries and possibly even by helicopter.

This sounds expensive and it is not quite as easy as icing a Christmas cake. One helicopter has already been dropping loose straw, straw bales and wooden frames to help make the snow stick when it is dumped and help give contours to some of the courses. It should work – barring more non-cooperation from the heavens, like driving rain.

The financial problems at Whistler had not been expected.

Late Thursday, creditors to Intrawest, the Canadian company that owns the resort as well as several others in North America, announced plans to begin foreclosure after it failed to keep up with the interest payments on its loan. The plan for now is to auction off Whistler to the highest bidder on 19 February – when the Games will be in full swing.

So far officials with the Vancouver organising committee, Vanoc, are staying sanguine about the resort's woes, expressing cautious confidence that it should have no direct effect on the progress of the sports extravaganza.

"We're very confident that the Games will go on in those two venues in Whistler and will go on with the cooperation of the people who are running the mountain," said Dan Doyle, the executive vice president for venue construction at Vanoc. Asked again about the possibility of disruptions, he mooted: "There is a small chance. It's minuscule. Smaller than small. I don't think it's a problem at all."

At the very least, the problems at Whistler and the bare patches at Cypress are an unwelcome distraction for Vancouver, which is hoping to highlight the shiny, bright side of itself and its winter destinations to an envious world.

Instead, it seems to be the victim of two global trends at once, the credit crunch and global warming. (Although the Austrian Army was deployed to move ice and snow to the slopes of Innsbruck for the 1964 Winter Games.)

At least there is good snow at Whistler – for now. But as anyone who has skied there knows, a sudden muggy wind from the Pacific can turn even that great mountain from a paradise of powder into pastures of porridge.