Archive for the ‘1’ Category

Remembering Greg Athans

April 21, 2010

GREG ATHANS – Lives Lived

By Steven Threndyle

During the mid-70s, when Canadian Olympic ski racers were struggling to make ends meet, hot dog skier Greg Athans once won four cars. In a single weekend. While talented skiers were channeled into ski racing programs that might lead to success at the Olympics or in the World Cup, Athans eschewed bashing bamboo gates for bashing the bumps.

His athletic success was almost  preordained. Like most successful athletes, he had the right genes. Greg’s father George Sr., a family physician in Kelowna, was a three-time Olympic diver, who won a gold medal at the British Empire Games. His mother Irene competed internationally in both competitive and synchronized swimming, and once co-held a world Masters record as part of a relay team.

Then, there was the environment. Growing up in the bucolic Okanagan Valley during the 60s and early 70s, Greg and his brothers lived in a kind of “Beach Boys version of Kelowna,” according to older brother George. “All of us learned how to snow and water ski from the time that we could walk. It was a perfect time. Skiing in the winter up at Big White, carving turns behind a ski boat in the summer – it really was nothing but fun in the sun.”

George and Irene encouraged their children to not just participate, but to compete, in both water and snow skiing. George soon became a national champion water skier, while younger brother Gary excelled at ski racing, racing for Canada’s national team at a time when it was full of stars such as Todd Brooker and Steve Podborski.

But it was Greg who would successfully compete in both water and snow skiing – especially in the fledgling sport of freestyle skiing. His skiing career started in a traditional way – bashing gates as a young ski racer and travelling throughout BC to competitions. However, the more free-spirited and anarchic sport of freestyle skiing beckoned. Athans was part of the ‘second wave’ of freestyle skiers who took the sport from its counterculture roots and brought serious athleticism and gymnastic talent to the three disciplines of moguls, aerials, and ballet skiing.

“Exhibition”, “hot dog”, or “freestyle” skiing as it was called, arose from a Sixties-flavoured ski bum culture and emphasized creative tricks over racing against the clock.  Doug Pfeiffer, the ‘father of freestyle’ who organized many of the early competitions, says, “the early freestylers had an image – not entirely accurate – as pot smoking hot doggers. Greg didn’t come from this hippie generation. In every event, competitors performed something that neither the judges nor spectators had ever seen before. Greg was an instant stunner on the circuit – very well coordinated and a real gymnast on skis. His ballet moves were outstanding – he pulled a 720 (two full rotations) on a groomed, flat slope at a time when many competitors were having trouble landing a 360 (single rotation) from a jump.”

Success followed quickly. In his first season, he drove away with no less than four cars – since Chevrolet was a major sponsor of the tour. George says, “he used to joke that he could have opened up his own taxi company with the cars he’d won. There were problems with Customs in getting the cars across the border, though, so they gave him a cash settlement.”

When Athans jumped from the Chevrolet-sponsored tour to the PFA (Professional Freestylers Alliance) tour, fellow competitor Rusty Taylor said, “we (PFA skiers) knew we’d have to pick up our game. Greg was ‘built right for’ a freestyle skier. He was compact and had very strong legs. And when he put his game-face on, he was all business.” By this time, hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money was pouring into freestyle skiing. It wasn’t just ‘hot dogging’, anymore.

Many of Greg’s spinning manoeuvres were a direct crossover from the world of ‘figure skiing’ on the water, a discipline of the sport that he excelled in. He won fifteen national water skiing championships and was the first person to win gold medals at both the Canada Summer and Winter Games.

Though some sibling rivalry might have been evident while growing up, it was primarily Greg’s focus and dedication which gave him the mettle to be a champion. George Jr. says, “he would use both video and photography to break down and analyze his moves, at a time when very few people did. Whatever he did, he taught himself – water skiing, snow skiing, and later, photography.”

Rick Bowie was part of a freestyle skiing family from Calgary, and instantly hit it off with “Ath”, as his friends called him. “We both came from accomplished sporting families so I think we had that in common right away. But although he was very focused and competitive, he was also extremely helpful. We roomed together for months at a time, and if he had a bad run he’d be right there at the side of the course cheering me on. He helped me at ballet, and I helped him in aerials.”

He practiced his freestyle skiing tricks, even in the summer. George recalls that Greg built a water ramp in the beach in front of his girlfriend – later, his wife’s parents’ house. “My parents didn’t want a ramp clogging up their beach. It was about thirty feet high, and he lined the ramp and kicker part of the jump with Astroturf. He’d ski down it with his snow skis on, do his flips and twists, and land in the water, get out, and do it again.” This form of summer training is now part of virtually every freestyle skier’s training regime. Bowie mentions that “he was not just an athlete, he was an innovator. He welded a ‘T-grip’ onto the top of his poles to improve his leverage and make it easier to perform back flips during his ballet routines.”

Many of Greg’s accomplishments occurred during a time when freestyle skiing was having difficulty being accepted by the skiing establishment, especially ski racers. Athans’s prodigious talent is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that he once handily beat a bunch of trash-talking racers on a course at Blue Mountain in Ontario using a pair of short, soft-flexing ballet skis.

He was even a pioneer in the world of combining music and skiing; having once shown up to Big White Ski Resort wearing a pair of headphones with a cassette tape recorder attached to his body; an early precursor to the Sony Walkman and I-Pods which followed. He appeared in three Warren Miller and Dick Barrymore movies, a true sign that he’d ‘made it’ as a professional skier.

Athans retired from freestyle skiing in 1982, after chalking up twenty World Cup events. By the time he quit, the pro circuit was in serious disarray and he was one of the first competitors to speak out in favour of gaining Olympic status for the sport, which has since occurred.

Post retirement, Athans was actively involved in fundraising for the Vancouver Children’s Hospital Foundation. A special event held annually at Whistler Mountain for the Vancouver raised over $150,000 in a five year period. Athans was, at heart, a gentle soul. In the days following his death, his daughter Zoe, now 12, confided to her uncle George that her father had “never once raised his voice to me.”

Athans was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes about ten years ago, and died in early August from complications. George says that “maybe due to the fact that he was such a good athlete, he didn’t look after himself as well as he could have, and unfortunately got out of control. If there’s a lesson to be learned in Greg’s death, it’s that we should all stay healthy and make time for family members and those whom we love..”

Condolences have flooded in from all over the world, including Prime Minister Harper, as well as Athans’s friends in the worlds of freestyle skiing, photography, and philanthropy. Nancy Greene-Raine, Canada’s Female Athlete of the Half Century and a fellow ski coach from the Whistler years, said “Greg was like a pebble in a pond; those close to the first ripple were indeed fortunate, yet as the ripples expanded, he continued to touch and influence a vast network of friends, colleagues and competitors.” The Canadian Freestyle Skiing Federation has announced the creation of a special ‘rookie of the year’ award to honour his freestyle skiing career.

Greg Athans was born in Kelowna on June 18, 1955. He died of complications arising from diabetes in Vancouver, B.C. on August 1, 2006. He is survived by his parents, George Sr. and Irene, his brothers, George Jr. and Gary, and two children, Carly and Zoe.

In the Heat of the Moment – Olympic thoughts, part 3

March 1, 2010

Ten, er, Eleven Reflections on the Winter Games (Week Two)
1) To the best athletes, “Winning is everything” (Just ask Chris del Bosco and Devon Kershaw) Did you catch the interview with CDN Nordic racer Devon Kershaw after the 50K race this afternoon? The guy finished in fifth place by a second and a half and beats himself up for NOT WINNING. Similarly, last week Ski Cross racer Chris del Bosco admitted that he ‘blew’ a ‘sure bronze medal’ in his attempt to win the Ski Cross final by attempting an extremely risky move… So, here’s an idea for the Games…
2) Let’s just do away with Silver and Bronze medals completely. In Europe, in fact, the country who wins the Olympics is the one with the most GOLD medals. The others are seen as trinkets to be forgotten in a chest of drawers. “Oh, it’s my bronze speed skating medal.” So, right now, Canada would be the Number One country, not the United States. Forget ‘owning the podium’, let’s just call it ‘owning’, period. After all, as Queen says “no time for losers…”
3) No logos – don’t you love it? After covering every manner of Red Bull, Monster, TELUS, Honda, (insert corporate sponsor, here*) event for the past two decades, it was a true relief to go to a sporting event and see only ‘one’ sponsor – the Olympic brand. Sure, there was TV advertising but even the on-site OBS broadcasts were bereft of ‘commercial messages’ as were the venues themselves. Corporate sponsors paid almost a collective billion dollars and were left with little more than ‘official computer of the Olympic Games’ (hands up if you even know which company that was??). I even saw a pic of the two CDN freestyle aerialists and they had duct tape over their helmet logos.
4) Attn: Rossi, Fischer, Atomic, Salomon – huge corporate opportunity, missed. MANY of the top freestyle skiers in both aerials and moguls were skiing on unbelievably obscure brands such as the Japanese based “One-Ski” and “Hart” – a brand that was huge in the 1960s but that hasn’t been seen on the slopes i n North America in over two decades. A similar oddity of equipment occurred in both ski cross and parallel giant slalom, where some company starting with a “K” (Kessler?) dominated the podium. Oh, right, the Dew Tour offers more ‘engagement’ opportunities.
5) A ‘religious experience…’ is likely the closest thing I can think of to describe the wave of euphoria that swept over Vancouver, Whistler, and then the rest of Canada as Olympic caught on. Thing is, if you talk to Calgarians who were there in ’88, they’re still on a high. Due to the carpet-bombing saturation media coverage, everything stopped… and – due to the utterly bizarre smorgasboard of events – there was drama for everybody. Still, here in Vancouver, it was far more than that. It was all about strolling around downtown, and looking at big screens and waiting in line for hospitality houses. Aside from Oly merchandise, all that downtown activity was not about mindless consumerism. Who knew that people went downtown to do something other than shop or party? Interestingly, one place that WAS packed was the Coastal Church on Georgia and Bute.
6) Ice dancing, luge, Nordic combined, and the wrestling match that is short-track speed skating – Not even the X-Games marketers could make these sports up. Most Winter Games sports are entirely un-television friendly, but we tuned in in record numbers. Curling, people! That Canadian female skip was a fox, though! Maybe that was it. In a sense, watching those obscure events was like tuning in to the best, most unscripted reality show that you can imagine.
7) The point being… the Olympics is so much greater than the sum of its parts… At one point, I almost, almost, thought that snowboarder Shaun White was bigger than the Games themselves. THEN, he did that flippy trick that sent the judges (and the worldwide audience) into a tizzy. Ol’ carrot top truly did inject Week One with some megawatt star power, which helped pull the Games out of its funk. But Shaun was forgotten two days after he left, replaced by a cast of incredibly interesting athletes whose talents and backstory were matched only by their obscure sports.
8) Red… it ain’t really my color. Er, ‘colour.’ I’m good with the fact that $3M worth of red mittens were sold (we have a pair in the house) but I don’t look good in red, so I didn’t really wear any. Our bathroom, though, is rockin’ two very sweet Olympic mascot towels in green and blue or whatever bizarre hues those were. Oddly, I did not see Quaatchi, Miga, and Satchmo or whoever the third one was do much in the way of public appearances. The A&W Root Bear could have done better. They always were sorta mysterious creatures. At our kids’ school, the mascots could not have their pictures taken with the kids. In a similar vein, I don’t get all verklempt over “O Canada”, either. Neither, it seems, does Stephen Harper.
9) NBC Heart Vancouver – Well, the ‘in kind advertising’ (as we marketing/media types like to call it) of having the USA’s number four network beam images of Vancouver to the United States is certainly in the tens of millions of dollars during the past 17 days. NBC paid $800M to the IOC for the broadcast rights and Vancouver reaped enormous benefits in terms of free exposure. Now if the government would only ‘open the skies’ to USA carriers, maybe Americans could afford to visit us instead of being ransomed by Air Canada.
10) Sid the Kid proved that… sport is 99 percent instinctive. Announcers asked what he did… he admitted he didn’t have a clue. “I think it went fivehole…” As if he had the chance to actually think about it…
11) Finally, imagine if the rest of the world took a sport as seriously as Canadians take hockey. Indeed, tonight at the Broadcast Center, a Canadian actually apologized to an American saying that ‘he’s sorry that someone had to lose today’s game’ (don’t worry, it was not ME expressing this namby-pamby sentiment). The American dude looked somewhat bemused, then said “yeah, I don’t much care for hockey…’ Well, in three months’ time, we will see the sport that wars have been fought over. The world calls it ‘football’, and it’s ‘the beautiful game.’ The World Cup in South Africa? Now, THAT will be a transformative event. I, for one, can hardly wait. It is like that eight minutes of overtime, over and over and over again, game in and game out.

Oly Blog – Whistler, Men’s DH, etc…

February 17, 2010

Oly Blog, Days 3 and 4…
A Baker’s Dozen Observations:
1) ALL of the racers who negotiated Whistler’s Oly DH course with its tricky snow conditions and seriously fast turns. Manny and Robbie REALLY went for it, but their enthusiasm may have been too much. My prediction? An Eric Guay medal in Super G. And how will Lindsey Vonn ski?
2) Maelle Ricker – Mike McCullough reminded me that we ran a story about her in COAST magazine when she was 16. I went back into the stacks to see if I could find it, but could not. It was in a cover feature called “The Year Boarding Broke” in 1995. Today, CTV breathlessly announced that she was “the new face of Canadian snowboarding.” Yep, ‘new’ alright.
3) VANOC is taking heat from international media for all kinds of logistical snafus but the standing room only controversy is truly the worst. Why a viewing platform wasn’t built is beyond me. These people (and I’m one of them) have been ripped off, plain and simple.
4) After two trips up there, I have to say… you have NO IDEA how big the production is at Cypress. No, they could NEVER have moved the Games to the interior. And, I’ve got to say, the courses have held up remarkably well. Huge props to Tim Gayda’s crew for getting these events off.
5) Still no real answers on how Cypress got to host the skiing events, but there’s a reporter working on it.
6) Finds it curious that CanWest is using action images from Getty Images instead of the stuff their own shooters are supplying. That said, Getty ARE the gold standard for event photographers.
7) “There’s magic in the air,” my shooter pal Karl said after we had grooved for over an hour to Quebecois jazz/hip-hop band Misteur Valaire last night in Whistler. This band was BEYOND good; their multimedia show must be seen to be believed.
8) Cannot even begin to keep up with the steady media streaming on Reuters, Christian Science Monitor, NYTimes, Guardian UK, Sydney Morning Herald, it just goes on and on… This is the 24/7 news cycle that is beyond intense…
9) CBC gave a shout out to Ross Rebagliati’s snowboard medal, but I never heard it mentioned on CTV.
10) Though I had a checked history with the Canadian Tourism Commission, I have to give ‘em props for commissioning Shane Koyczan and his fabulous spoken word piece during the Opening Ceremonies. Too bad I haven’t seen any reference to it in the media…
11) I’ll likely watch more hockey games in the next ten days than in the next five years. I just hope it’s exciting, wide open, and doesn’t ‘go to shoot-out.’
12) Still waiting for the flame to bust out of jail…
13) Paid $9.25 for a beer at the Dublinh Gate yesterday. (A super-silky Kilkenny)… Actually, I think that’s the normal price, if you can believe it!

And finally… I would NOT WANT Renee Smith-Valade’s job for all the money in the world!

Olympic Blog – Days 3 and 4

February 17, 2010

Oly Blog: Thumbs up, Thumbs Down… in no particular order
Thumbs up:
1) Vancouver Spirit – Who knew? Our truly ‘felt the love’ while walking down to see the flame on a gorgeous spring, er, winter, day. I love seeing all of the jackets and uniforms from other countries and shared a couple of pints with a wonderful journo from Nine Network in Australia last night. I would bet that many of the people walking the streets are in fact coming in from the ‘burbs – where support for the Games is ABSOLUTELY overwhelming. People in Vancouver proper HATE the suburbs. Fuck ‘em, this is the revenge of the Real Canadians.
2) Opening ceremonies – not too sure about the ‘multiple torch lighters’ concept – great to see Nancy Greene-Raine included – (though why they left Al Raine’s name off is beyond me – what, they can’t get their heads around the hyphenated names?). I loved all of the different unis (check out that Mongolian outfit!) – the Austrian one was suitably fascistic… Loved the version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Clouds’, the fabulous ‘whales’ that came out of the floor, the First Nations dancers (did they EVER STOP?). I even loved the cheesy, American Idol-inspired Bryan Adams/Nelly Furtado duet.
3) Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau – Because they BOTH won gold tonight. Truly a night to remember – and – haha – I called it on my blog at NBCOlympics.com! I have tons more to say on this, basically, I love three things – the fact that AB is Quebecois, and continues a long line of excellence from that province, that he kept talking about ‘how more medals are to come’ from Canada, rather than tooting his own horn (which he would never do; I have interviewed him and he is just the best) and – I loved his aerials. That double twisting backflip off the top was sheer poetry. What else did I love – the fact that CDNs finished 4, 5, and 11 as well. Outstanding team effort!
4) Speaking of which, I LOVED the fact that one of the Russian bump skiers tossed in a ‘truck driver’ move. That is New School steeze, to the max. Jonny Moseley said “I love that trick, but the judges don’t!”
5) I love the torch, but hate that it’s behind a chain link fence. But that will change, apparently! It is a wonderful beacon and focus of energy during the Games. People will really miss it.
6) The incredible energy at Whistler – your days are coming, and the world will love it.
7) The huge museum quality prints in the Main Press Center of Olympics Games gone by. They were contributed by the Associated Press.
8) I love the fact that the Games are just so damned INTERNATIONAL. People from all over the world. Did I mention how I love the uniforms?
9) Hearing Jonny Moseley’s commentary for NBC has been awesome – he is a real pro and I’ve really come to respect his analysis. Come to think of it, OBS (Olympic Broadcast Services) has a tremendous freestyle announcer. I have no clue who he is, though!
10) Getting an edition of the Globe on Sunday. Even though I haven’t cracked it, or the NYTimes, or The Province, yet.
11) The US Freestyle one-piece uniforms. Did I tell you I love all of the international unis?
12) Vancouver, when it’s sunny out, like it was today and tonight. Outstanding. The best place on earth. Shit, did I just say that? Sorry, NDP…
13) The First Nations logo inside the maple leaf. IO thought it was just the hockey team, but all of the unis have it.
14) That quite wonderfully Tourism Quebec commercial which shows telemark skiers and superb views of the St Lawrence valley.
15) The D-Spin. A staple of any freestyle skier now, it’s the best and steeziest move the bump skiers throw in. And it was invented by Mike Douglas.
16) Jenn Heil. She threw down an awesome run, but Hannah Kearney was just THAT MUCH better. Am curious as to how it would have turned out had the course been rock hard, since speed is Heil’s forte. Still, she ‘won the silver,’ as they say. Good on her! Loved Chloe Dufour-Lapointe’s run as well.
THUMBS DOWN:
1) The Olympic criminals. The idiots who broke the Bay windows and tied up all of the traffic. Hopefully, we’ve seen the last of ‘em. They are not ‘the Olympic protesters’ – they are criminals and I hope they throw the book at ‘em.
2) Cancellation of standing room tickets at the Cypress venue. Yet another reason why this place should NEVER have been selected to host the freestyle events. I have never received an answer to that question.
3) The horrendous bus lineups to get back to the city. Like, did VANOC not do a few dry runs of this beforehand?
4) The overwhelming sense that this event is ‘all about TV’ – don’t get me wrong, I love my HD, but so much of this event is tailored for TV audiences.
5) Brian Williams – he used to be so great, but has become so overawed with his own self-importance. Or something. I still really wish that CBC was the rights-holding broadcaster, frankly. CTV is SO commercial. But their ratings are through the roof. And they did have a good freestyle analyst.
6) Rainy, crappy weather like yesterday. As my colleague Lisa Richardson said, “Time to go home, El Nino.” That said, the rainforest is SO beautiful.

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down – Olympics, First Three Days!

February 15, 2010

Oly Blog: Thumbs up, Thumbs Down… in no particular order
Thumbs up:
1) Vancouver Spirit – Who knew? Our truly ‘felt the love’ while walking down to see the flame on a gorgeous spring, er, winter, day. I love seeing all of the jackets and uniforms from other countries and shared a couple of pints with a wonderful journo from Nine Network in Australia last night. I would bet that many of the people walking the streets are in fact coming in from the ‘burbs – where support for the Games is ABSOLUTELY overwhelming. People in Vancouver proper HATE the suburbs. Fuck ‘em, this is the revenge of the Real Canadians.
2) Opening ceremonies – not too sure about the ‘multiple torch lighters’ concept – great to see Nancy Greene-Raine included – (though why they left Al Raine’s name off is beyond me – what, they can’t get their heads around the hyphenated names?). I loved all of the different unis (check out that Mongolian outfit!) – the Austrian one was suitably fascistic… Loved the version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Clouds’, the fabulous ‘whales’ that came out of the floor, the First Nations dancers (did they EVER STOP?). I even loved the cheesy, American Idol-inspired Bryan Adams/Nelly Furtado duet.
3) Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau – Because they BOTH won gold tonight. Truly a night to remember – and – haha – I called it on my blog at NBCOlympics.com! I have tons more to say on this, basically, I love three things – the fact that AB is Quebecois, and continues a long line of excellence from that province, that he kept talking about ‘how more medals are to come’ from Canada, rather than tooting his own horn (which he would never do; I have interviewed him and he is just the best) and – I loved his aerials. That double twisting backflip off the top was sheer poetry. What else did I love – the fact that CDNs finished 4, 5, and 11 as well. Outstanding team effort!
4) Speaking of which, I LOVED the fact that one of the Russian bump skiers tossed in a ‘truck driver’ move. That is New School steeze, to the max. Jonny Moseley said “I love that trick, but the judges don’t!”
5) I love the torch, but hate that it’s behind a chain link fence. But that will change, apparently! It is a wonderful beacon and focus of energy during the Games. People will really miss it.
6) The incredible energy at Whistler – your days are coming, and the world will love it.
7) The huge museum quality prints in the Main Press Center of Olympics Games gone by. They were contributed by the Associated Press.
8) I love the fact that the Games are just so damned INTERNATIONAL. People from all over the world. Did I mention how I love the uniforms?
9) Hearing Jonny Moseley’s commentary for NBC has been awesome – he is a real pro and I’ve really come to respect his analysis. Come to think of it, OBS (Olympic Broadcast Services) has a tremendous freestyle announcer. I have no clue who he is, though!
10) Getting an edition of the Globe on Sunday. Even though I haven’t cracked it, or the NYTimes, or The Province, yet.
11) The US Freestyle one-piece uniforms. Did I tell you I love all of the international unis?
12) Vancouver, when it’s sunny out, like it was today and tonight. Outstanding. The best place on earth. Shit, did I just say that? Sorry, NDP…
13) The First Nations logo inside the maple leaf. IO thought it was just the hockey team, but all of the unis have it.
14) That quite wonderfully Tourism Quebec commercial which shows telemark skiers and superb views of the St Lawrence valley.
15) The D-Spin. A staple of any freestyle skier now, it’s the best and steeziest move the bump skiers throw in. And it was invented by Mike Douglas.
16) Jenn Heil. She threw down an awesome run, but Hannah Kearney was just THAT MUCH better. Am curious as to how it would have turned out had the course been rock hard, since speed is Heil’s forte. Still, she ‘won the silver,’ as they say. Good on her! Loved Chloe Dufour-Lapointe’s run as well.
THUMBS DOWN:
1) The Olympic criminals. The idiots who broke the Bay windows and tied up all of the traffic. Hopefully, we’ve seen the last of ‘em. They are not ‘the Olympic protesters’ – they are criminals and I hope they throw the book at ‘em.
2) Cancellation of standing room tickets at the Cypress venue. Yet another reason why this place should NEVER have been selected to host the freestyle events. I have never received an answer to that question.
3) The horrendous bus lineups to get back to the city. Like, did VANOC not do a few dry runs of this beforehand?
4) The overwhelming sense that this event is ‘all about TV’ – don’t get me wrong, I love my HD, but so much of this event is tailored for TV audiences.
5) Brian Williams – he used to be so great, but has become so overawed with his own self-importance. Or something. I still really wish that CBC was the rights-holding broadcaster, frankly. CTV is SO commercial. But their ratings are through the roof. And they did have a good freestyle analyst.
6) Rainy, crappy weather like yesterday. As my colleague Lisa Richardson said, “Time to go home, El Nino.” That said, the rainforest is SO beautiful.

One week from today – notes from the front (Whistler)

February 6, 2010

Well, I’ve been skiing at Whistler Blackcomb for over 25 years (on and off) and this was certainly one to remember.  The Olympic Torch Relay came to town, which neatly coincided with a fresh snowfall and a lucky coincidence in having a buddy (dentist Vern Beckie) who wanted to take it all in.

“Security lockdown” is the only way to describe what it’s like to drive the Sea-to-Sky Hwy right now. We saw – no kidding – at least a dozen RCMP cars – parked at the side of the road, in the lot of the Starbucks in Squamish, and providing a wonderful ‘escort’ (one in front, and one behind) for a nice, leisurely drive from Squamish to Whistler at EXACTLY the speed limit. Maybe even a little less. Parking in the village lot cost $20 and frankly, no matter who purchases Intrawest or Whistler Blackcomb, I will bet that this is one “post Games legacy” that you’re sure to see. Maybe not right away, but pay parking will come to WB in the day lots at some point in the next five years.

Up on Blackcomb, it was quiet. No, make that utterly abandoned. On our first run we had fresh tracks down Blackcomb Glacier (at the crack’ o’ noon time of 11:00 am; and at 2:50 enjoyed first tracks down Cockalorum on Whistler.  At one point, we looked up on the Blackcomb Glacier and we were the ONLY TWO people on the whole damned thing.

Ate lunch around 12:30 and found a ‘table for eight’ in Glacier Lodge with no problem (even though it was just Vern and me). We did not ride the lifts with anyone else, nor did we see anyone in line. It was… eerie. And, for all of you skiers, a likely sample of what the skiing will be like come Games-time. You’ll have the mountain to yourself for two weeks in the middle of winter. How sweet is that?

In the Village, though, it was quite another story. People started milling around the stage for the arrival of the Olympic torch at around 5:30, and the crowd built, and built, and built. After a couple of beers and a plate of natchos (Olympic pricing in effect; no, wait, that’s just Whistler pricing) at the GLC, we decided to go into the Village and wait for the Torch. Bill Good and Pamela Martin were broadcasting live from the plaza (or whatever the hell that place where Crankworx is held each year is called), and there were people EVERYWHERE sporting red and white Canada sweaters, jackets, everything. Happily, the corporate presence was not NEARLY as heavy handed as I thought it might be; far less than Crankworx, for example. The MC gamely tried to engage the crowd, but didn’t have much to go on. Tourism BC played their ‘You Gotta Be Here’ advert (an ‘extended cut’, without Kim Cantrell and Steve Nash). Suddenly, up on the slopes, the torch was transported via snowmobile (apparently being carried by Julia Murray, the unfortunately-injured Ski Cross skier) and then it was skied back down under the lights by Crazy Canuck and all-around ham Steve Podborski, who handed it off to Whistler student Tyler Allison.

The crowd got pretty revved up by this time, well, as much as you can get revved up for a tiny flame in a sea of thousands, and respectfully sang along to “O Canada”. Yet another verklempt moment – they don’t sing O Canada at goddam Red Bull events, do they? I would bet that eighty percent of the people in attendance were Whistler locals, who I am convinced will support these Games even more than Vancouverites will. We never did catch Barney Bentall; I think he was playing a different stage than the main venue. It was wonderful evening, and I will bet that Starbucks sold out of hot chocolate for all of those kiddies and their parents wandering the Village afterward.

As anyone who visited there in February knows, Whistler is an incredibly vibrant town. I am not sure – even after watching the Torch Relay – how much more stoked the place will be than normal. I think a LOT of hotel beds are taken up by support crews, members of the international media, coaching staff, and people who – essentially – are there to work, and not necessarily party or vacation. In fact, we hear that Vancouver can expect 400,000 visitors over the 17 day period – are these tourists with Games tickets and money to spend, or are they people up there to do a job?

One thing is for sure – they aren’t there to ski…

Live Blogging for NBCOlympics.com

January 27, 2010

As many of you know, I landed a gig awhile ago with NBCOlympics.com that came to my through SKIER magazine editor/Games hater Leslie Anthony. My role at NBCOlympics.com will be to ‘live blog’ about the freestyle skiing events at Cypress Mountain. Now, I have actually followed live blogging in the past, most notably the soccer ‘blog-casts’ hosted by the Guardian website in the UK. When I’ve thought of blogs previously, I imagined some geek at home with his laptop on watching a sports event on TV and following the play by play and commentary on the screen, and adding his/her 2 cents worth to the live blog as the match unfolds. However, that’s not really what live blogging is all about. Live blogging is sort of like “typewritten radio,” – in other words, you’re at work and you want to find out how the men’s ski cross is going on, so you go to my live blog to get my ‘play by play’. Aside from wondering just how many people actually DO this sort of thing, it also begs the question of ‘live’ versus ‘packaged’ events. As anyone who follows the Games knows, NBC often “packages” Games highlights into the prime time timeslot. Though an effort is made to make these events look ‘live’, quite often they were recorded earlier in the day. Personally, I was under the impression that ‘live streaming’ webcasts were “the future” in terms of offering up content. I’m frankly a bit nervous about it all due to the fact that I’ve watched more than my share of ski races and moguls comps and if you turn down the sound, it’s not always readily apparent who is winning, and why (that’s, uh, what we have commentators for!). “Your role is to be part play by play announcer and color commentator,” the fellow from NBC told our team. Apparently, I’ll be sitting in a tented media area, watching from the stands, and furiously typing as I report on what’s going down. That said, I’m not quite sure if live blogging belongs to the 21st century or to the early days of radio, frankly.

Move Cypress Olympic Events to the BC Interior!

January 24, 2010

Send in Jack Bauer to Save Cypress Mountain’s Freestyle and Snowboard Events

Last week, the fictional TV series “24” started its eight season, with Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland saving the citizens of New York City from some kind of deadly terrorist attack within the space of a single day.

Right now, the organizers of the 2010 Winter Games need Jack Bauer to help organize a task that is surely less onerous than thwarting a terrorist attack – he needs to come to Canada to orchestrate moving the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events from Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver to the ski resorts of the Thompson-Okanagan in the BC Interior.

I watched in horror on the news last week as a BCTV helicopter hovered through the mist to take aerial shots of the site where VANOC hopes to host the freestyle and snowboard events. It isn’t that the runs look bad – in fact, they look terrible – it’s the fact that VANOC organizers seem to somehow believe that they can run a world class winter competition on haybales and straw and snow ‘helicoptered’ in from other places on the mountain. VANOC spokesperson Tim Gayda is being disingenuous about how well the natural snow cover will hold up. I would bet that the special grooming tools used to sculpt the halfpipe for the snowboard event won’t even be able to   After several days of melt, snow – even injected snow – becomes isothermal and utterly unable to hold its cohesion.  Last year, event organizers pulled the plug on the ‘soft snow’ conditions at Cypress when it had a two-metre base. Besides, who wants to see the world’s best compete in mush?

Quite simply, this is not going to work, and I believe the organizers know it. For one thing, we are obviously in a deep El Nino year, where unseasonably warm temperatures and driving rains have washed away much of the snowpack in the altitude-challenged North Shore Mountains. As we get into February, the chance of below zero temperatures for any sustained period is poor. Let’s forget the fact that the long range outlook remains highly suspect and come up with a real “Plan B.”

In short – the freestyle and snowboard events must be moved from Cypress to the quartet of resorts in the Thompson-Okanagan; namely, Sun Peaks, Silver Star, Big White, and Apex Resort. Every one of these four resorts has hosted national and international calibre events in the past, and I am willing to be any money that they would all step up to the plate to bail out the 2010 Winter Games events right now. In fact, if we here in British Columbia really want to show the world that we can put on a show, we’ll move event venues tomorrow to make these Games happen in a true winter wonderland.

What about the Olympic ticketholders? Well, refund their money. Rock and roll acts cancel tours at the last minute all the time – cancelled due to poor weather – done. I am betting that the vast majority of ticketholders to those events come from BC anyway. Do what the Premier said and take a few days off and enjoy the Games – except enjoy them in the Interior. We need a mid-winter, er, mid-February holiday in BC, anyway. Fill up those Sandman Inns and Coast Hotels and run buses up to the slopes.

It’s too late to hold any kind of ticket lottery or whatever – here’s what the resorts do. They throw the events open free of charge to everyone. Or, they pass the hat around for Haiti. Don’t just have people in the finish area – have ‘em lining the course, waving flags, ringing cowbells, and cheering at the top of their lungs as Canadian skiers and snowboarder goes for the gold. Think of the amazing visuals that will be beamed around the world!

And  what about the tens of thousands of media who will be making the trek to Vancouver? Send ‘em up on the Coquihalla as well. The airports have excellent connections through Vancouver – have one security checkpoint at YVR and wave ‘em through in Kelowna and Kamloops. The ski areas all advertise that it’s what, a 3.5 hour trip to Sun Peaks? Let’s put those estimates to the test. Heck, we’ll even give ‘em a police escort.

OK – so, here’s the triage. Sun Peaks – you get the men’s and women’s snowboard cross and ski cross events. The surface for these slopes has to be rock hard. For years, your resort has hosted the Austrian alpine team – in November, even. Call Nancy Greene-Raine back from the Senate to start kicking butt to get things done.

Big White? You get Shaun White – arguably the biggest name that the 2010 Winter Games will host. Start making snow in the Superpipe – remember when you had to step in to host the Honda Tour of Champions (cancelled, er, due to lack of snow at Cypress)? Get moving on it.

Silver Star Mountain Resort near Vernon is home to one of the most active freestyle clubs in Canada, and has produced some of the top freeskiers in the world. The fact that they would rather compete on the Dew Tour and X-Games is a story for another day – but the mountain has hosted national freestyle moguls events in the past. The mogul run spills right down into the village and would be an excellent venue from a spectator standpoint. You could even watch the runs from your slopeside condo.

And, there’s even a sport for tiny Apex down near Penticton. Apex, too, has had a burgeoning freestyle scene for years. They could certainly step up and host the aerial events, and the Okanagan Run is even lighted for night skiing.

What about Whistler, you might ask? Well, BCTV already did, and CEO David Brownlie answered with an unequivocal “no” about hosting the freestyle events. Besides, the highway will be congested enough as it is.

As someone who once lived in the Okanagan, I cannot tell you how warmly the residents there will welcome the opportunity to pitch in and host the Games. Unlike the bleating hordes of Games-haters who are saying “I told you so” in Vancouver, they would take on this challenge and deliver a top-notch product. Think they’re mad about the Torch relay in the ‘heartland’ of BC? Host the medal ceremony in each of the city’s skating rinks and I can guarantee you the people will go crazy.

The advantages to the province are absolutely huge. Hell, we’ve thrown what, 3-billion at the Games – I would bet that you could move all of these events to these resorts for well under $50 million. And give a huge shot in the arm to winter tourism and a ton of free publicity to the rest of the province.

Of course, VANOC organizers will be in a tizzy about locking down security for the Games sites. Well, guess what – I just don’t see Kamloops or Penticton being a juicy terrorist target – besides, the vast majority of Games events are still going to be held in Vancouver. Maybe these satellite events will create some kind of diversionary tactic.

I, for one, do not want to see skiers and snowboarders doing their tricks on straw-flecked snow. This is Canada, and we’re a winter country. As Jack Bauer would say: ” Mr Furlong. With all due respect, you’re running out of time.”

Steven Threndyle is an award winning winter sports journalist in North Vancouver, BC. He hasn’t skied at Cypress, Grouse, or Mount Seymour yet this year.

Some thoughts on NGA’s demise…

December 4, 2009

News today that National Geographic Adventure magazine is shutting its doors left me ‘touching wood’ that I had just accepted a steady corporate job in the outdoor industry, but also evoked some thoughts about the state of adventure journalism in this brave and ever-changing on-line world.

This is truly the sh*ttiest Xmas gift for the staff that I’ve heard of in some time – hell, the Society is a not-for-profit, is it not – surely they could have staggered on until, say, March or April. I truly feel sorry for the staffers and freelancers affected by this closure – it has been such a brutal year.

Alas, once a magazine starts cutting the number of issues it produces in a year, that’s pretty much the beginning of the death spiral. Being down 44 percent in one year is a lot of ad dollars down the drain, in an industry where profit margins are never great to begin with.

I’ll be honest, though, while I really liked the idea of NGA, I quite often found its execution left something to be desired. In fact, what was wrong with NGA was what is wrong with magazines at many different levels.

NGA’s editor John Rasmus elevated “service journalism” to new heights in men’s magazines when he was over at Wenner Media’s Men’s Journal, and NGA – with its constant obsession of “to visit lists” grated on me. Unlike National Geographic, which was pretty much the antithesis of service journalism, NGA’s departments and story packaging often came off as looking a bit cheesy. We all know that it was Rodale’s Men’s Health that started the egregious trend to giving men ‘tips’ to improve their lives – and we know that Men’s Health was very financially successful and tapped into a lot of non-endemic advertising markets for that reason (though I do note that 2009 also claimed “Men’s Health Best Life” – a more upscale, Gucci – or at least TAG Heuer – version of MH). Also of note is the death of Outside GO, a similarly targeted magazine to NGA.

A couple of years ago when it came time to move offices, after a cursory glance of some back issues, I actually pitched all of my copies of NGA – aside the odd piece from Jim Gorman and David Roberts – the “well” of the book – where the features are written – was pathetic. The super-high standards of the parent magazine – driven by outstanding photography by the likes of Nick Nichols and Flip Nicklen – to say nothing of Bill Allard and even Sebastian Salgado – was generally absent.

And, as USA Today proved – mindless service writing (full disclosure, here – I have written a LOT of these sorts of stories in the past) – seems to have an audience. But I’ve always believed that it’s an readership that is a continent wide and only a inch or two deep.

I know, of course, that NGA was always going to be a version of NG Traveler for the Gore-Tex set – hence, the plethora of short, bite-sized stories. But hell, if I wasn’t going to shell out $5 at a newsstand for it, then who would?

It will be most interesting to see where the demise of NGA leaves its West Coast Editor Steve Casimiro, who is truly the Swiss Army Knife of outdoor journalists. He writes features, reviews gear, takes photos, and has his own website – indeed, if there was anyone better equipped to take advantage of the “social media space” it is Casimiro. He has enormous respect in the industry and grasps the importance of reaching out to his audience, yet at the end of the day I would bet that only ten percent at the most of NGA’s readers have any idea who the guys is. Will advertisers rush to support his website/blog? If he has impressive metrics, maybe they will. But virtually every special interest blogger I’ve talked to over the last couple of years has faced enormous challenges in actually making any money. Casimiro has a brand amongst industry insiders, for sure. But does he have the kind of mega-readership that would compel a Garmin, Canon, or Salomon to spend money on his site? I sincerely hope they do. Better work on that SEO strategy for your site, Steve!

The real problem, from where I sit, is that magazines like NGA, Outside, MJ, and MH simply do not offer content that I cannot already get on the internet. Magazines that thrive on service writing are destined for the bathroom, and that’s about it. Heck, even I read most of my gear reviews on backcountry.com these days, anyway.

A secondary problem also exists in that marketers are more flummoxed in how to spend their promotional dollars than ever before. Website? Hire bloggers? Make YouTube videos? Underwrite a core sports tweet-up? Sponsor a pro team? Suddenly, buying an advertisement in a magazine seems so, oh, 1998. I also don’t think that account execs are exploiting the very advantages that magazines have to offer to an advertiser – they keep saying things like “oh, all of our content is available for free online! You’ll get plenty of page-views!” This, at a time when internet marketing metrics show that click through rates on banner ads are in fact at an all-time low.

What would work, or does work, then? Truly beautiful, art-book style magazines like Frequency, Surfer’s Journal, the Ski Journal, and Alpinist, to use four examples. Yet, ironically, those magazines have their problems, too – while the presentation is superb – wonderful glossy-stock paper, perfect bindery, and generally clean art direction, the content itself leaves a bit to be desired. In their earnestness to be ‘core’ and everything that NGA and Outside are not, their stories are overly insider and simply – in many cases – not that well written. They are crafted by dedicated B-Listers for the most part speaking to their tribes. Yet as a group they seem to be doing relatively well – The Ski Journal even offers copies of its magazine in hard cover format.

Oddly, the very best skiing story that I’ve read in the past five years or so did not appear in Outside, Powder, SKIING or The Ski Journal. It was a 15,000-word plus opus by New Yorker writer Nick Paumgarten on the intense rivalry (at the time) between Hermann Maier and a relatively obscure American racer named Bode Miller. The important distinction here is that it was not a ski story, it was a New Yorker story – seamlessly constructed, meticulously researched, and, despite the fact that there were no photos – the reader had a very, very clear idea of what the ski racing was like. I have read that story two or three times since, and it really stands up.

So what, then, if we could combine the outstanding journalism of the New Yorker with the beautiful imagery of National Geographic, and carry it forward into the adventure world? That was the promise of Larry Burke’s Outside magazine, and you can easily go back into the 80s and 90s and see some stellar examples of award-winning story packages. I seldom ever saw features of that type in NGA, and that is why I often browsed the magazine and then left it on the 7-11 shelf.

So, in the end, I say, RIP, National Geographic Adventure – “you shoulda been a contenda…”

Plug for Guy K’s Alltop News Aggregator site – skiing

May 4, 2009

Well, we’re heavy into Week Two of increasing my social media profile – have spent more time on Facebook than the last  year combined, created a PICASA photo portfolio, have looked into Twitter (and concluded that – like in the 1970s – “Real Men Don’t Twitter”) but also came across the coolest website yet for news aggregation. Of course most of us get Google Alerts in our in-box, but Guy Kawasaki’s Alltop website ‘pulls’ topical headlines from all over the web and puts ’em into one easily digestible place. The number of feeds is pretty impressive – I dunno, I certainly find creating an “Alltop Skiing” link the my browser dashboard helps me stay on top of things. Alas, it’s been another bad week in media-land and I have to admit I wonder where the whole industry will end up. It seems desperate, but the Vancouver Sun had an entire ‘newspaper appreciation issue’ yesterday. Indeed, I had a ‘big media day’ over the weekend, checking out the National Post, the Sun and the Globe. And there certainly were worthwhile stories in each and every one, and ones that I enjoyed reading more than on a computer screen. But… I’m in danger of becoming totally irrelevant in the media world, so what the hell…