- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

After years of preparations, Vancouver gets its chance to host the XXI Winter Olympics starting with Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.

And this time, Canada insists, it will be different.

America’s northern neighbor has hosted two Olympics - the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary - and the host nation didn’t win a single gold medal in either.

So now, the Canadian Olympic Commission - thanks in part to a $66 million infusion from the country’s taxpayers, along with $51 million in sponsorship funds - is pushing the “Own the Podium” project to try and end that drought.

The program offers Canadians who take home gold $20,000 apiece, even if they happen to be well-paid professional athletes. Their stated goal is to take the overall medals title, something Germany did at the Turin Olympics in 2006.

Organizers certainly aren’t shy about their grand expectations of the Games, building it up as a nationwide event in a country where the maple leaf can be found on everything from clothing to familiar corporate logos

“We thought [the Olympics] could be a nation builder,” Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong told the media at a luncheon Wednesday. “The Games could be a moment in time for Canada where every Canadian could feel like they had participated in not just watching this and cheering it on, but in actual fact playing a role in helping it be successful.”

With high goals for the host athletes and the deep roots the game of hockey has north of the border, there probably are no athletes that will be more under the microscope than the Canadian men’s hockey team, made up of of NHL players and expected to win the nation’s second gold in eight years in the sport.

While the Canadians won gold the last time the Winter Olympics were in North America, in Salt Lake City in 2002, playing as the home team in Vancouver and marking perhaps the last time professionals will play in the tournament has ratcheted up expecations.

“Everybody in Canada expects gold and nothing else,” Canadian goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury told NHL.com. “I guess that’s what we have to get.”

One of the main challengers to Canada’s goal to win the overall medals count will be none other than the nation sitting just 25 miles south of BC Place, site of Friday’s ceremonies. The U.S., which finished second in the medal count in Turin, is expected to make a strong push for the overall medals title as well.

“We expect the Canadians to be in a very strong position,” USOC chief of sport performance Mike English told Reuters. “[Canada has] a comprehensive program, well funded. They certainly will enjoy home field advantage, but we haven’t exactly been sitting back.”

There will also be a solid American presence in the stands as the Olympics as well, as officials expect up to a million border crossings at the Washington state-British Columbia checkpoints during the Games, and the Department of Homeland Security expects an extimated 300,000 U.S. citizens to visit the region.

With the heavy border crossings, the U.S. government’s increased requirements for crossing of the U.S.-Canada border will be tested. While Americans heading north of the border won’t see much difference, fans returning to the U.S. will now need either a passport or passport card, unless they have a specially authorized driver’s license only available in four border states.

A high-target event just north of the border has also meant both nations are working together to try and keep the event safe.

“For us, what happened on Christmas Day means that we can’t get comfortable,” Mark Beaty, DHS federal coordinator for Olympic-related security and emergency preparedness in the United States told USA Today. “Though [the airplane bombing] was a failed attempt, it still shows that there a lot of bad people out there looking for an opportunity to inflict much harm. … This [event] has the potential to generate that kind of response.”

While the construction and venues were completed in plenty of time, the biggest problem thus far for organizers has been the weather.

While Washington, D.C., and much of the mid-Atlantic region is digging out from record snow, the Winter Olympics host city has had a relatively mildl winter and can hardly get a snowfall.

There is plenty of the white stuff, however, in Whistler, 75 miles north of Vancouver, where most of the skiing, bobsled and luge events will take place.

But recent temperatures of circa 50 degrees near Cypress Mountain, just north of the city, have forced organizers to truck in snow for the freestyle skiing, snowboarding and snowcross events.

“We may get help from Mother Nature, but we’re not counting on it,” John Furlong of the Vancouver Organizing Committee told the Associated Press this week. “The team is calculating what they have to do. The effort for the past 10 days has been superhuman. They’ve moved an extraordinary amount of snow.”

The last time the temperature hit the freezing mark in Vancouver was Jan. 6 - and the long-term forecast for the rest of the month suggests the temperature might not hit that mark again until after the Olympic flame is extinguished on Feb. 28.

To add insult to injury, the city has seen no snow since December, and doesn’t figure to see much at all during the Games barring an unforeseen change in the balmy weather pattern. London, host of the next Summer Olympics in 2012, has even seen more white stuff than Vancouver so far in 2010.

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