February 13, 2010 2:00 am
The death of a Georgian competitor in the luge during a training run yesterday cast a pall over the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympic Games. "We are in mourning," said Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee president, after the accident which killed Nodar Kumaritashvili.
The 21-year-old flew off the track and hit a steel pillar at the Whistler Sliding Centre. "I have no words to say how I feel," Mr Rogge said.
The accident brought tragedy to games which in many ways had been a model of good housekeeping and environmental stewardship.
The sporting venues were built on time and on budget. A new subway line links the airport to the city centre. The athletes' village, with a view over one of Vancouver's many picturesque waterways, sets high standards in energy-efficient construction .
However, unforeseen events have taken the shine off these accomplishments. An unprecedented economic boom pushed up labour and material costs during the early preparations. Then the recession hit. Most recently, the weather has dampened the Olympic spirit. Vancouver has had its warmest start to a year ever, and rain has kept revellers off the streets for the past few days.
Trucks and helicopters have been ferrying snow to Cypress Mountain, site of the snowboarding and other freestyle events. Construction crews have buried pipes filled with dry ice beneath the surface to stop snow from melting.
Ample snow is on the ground in Whistler, a two-hour drive north of Vancouver where the ski events will take place. But fog disrupted training sessions there this week.
The games will, above all, be remembered as the Recession Olympics.
The city lost its triple A credit rating last year when it was forced to take over financing of the athletes' village after a New York hedge fund, the project's main financier, stopped payment on the construction loan. Canadian banks have subsequently re-financed the loan at a much lower interest rate.
The downturn has also hurt revenues. The International Olympic Committee was unable to sign up two out of 11 budgeted global sponsors, reportedly forgoing C$30m ($28.4m, €20.9m, £18.2m). Some local sponsors have decided not to spend extra on billboards and other outdoor advertising, as they normally do.
The IOC agreed last August to bail out Vanoc if it incurred a deficit, the first such guarantee in Olympics history.
The organisers have sought to offset lower revenues by trimming spending. Mr Cobb says the athletes' facilities have remained intact but "we looked really hard at what we considered nice-to-haves".
"We do still expect to end up with a balanced budget," Mr Cobb says. "But if the recession had not occurred, I'd expect we'd be sitting here with tens of millions of dollars of surplus."
Whatever the financial legacy, Canadians are banking on the games to send some reassuring messages about their country - still the 11th biggest economy but increasingly overshadowed by the fast-growing nations of Asia and Latin America.
Michael Ignatieff, leader of the opposition Liberal party, wrote in The New York Times last week: "We aren't looking for the Vancouver games to be a grandiose exercise in self-promotion. Instead, we want to demonstrate that we're a people the world can count on."
Borrowing from the Sydney Olympics 10 years ago, Vancouver has invited 100 foreign executives to attend the games, most of them from clean energy and digital media companies in Asia and Europe.
"We're on the map for beauty and livability," says Gregor Robertson, the city's mayor. "But most people don't know Vancouver as a wonderful place to do business."
Mr Robertson, a fruit drinks entrepreneur before he entered politics, cites attractive tax rates and cultural diversity, giving the city almost an unrivalled window on Asia, Europe and North America. More than half of Vancouver's 2m residents have Asian roots.
For the next two weeks however, the focus is on those pesky unpredictables.
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