I began the morning by making the surprisingly traffic-free drive to the British Columbia Institute of Technology where my Olympic Bus Network shuttle was waiting to whisk me to Whistler. With many streets in Vancouver closed to non-Olympic vehicles, my commute along the famed Sea-to-Sky Highway was remarkably fast, landing me at the base of Whistler Village in just barely two hours.
With some time to kill before the skeleton heats I had come to watch, I purchased a sightseeing gondola pass and rode the 20-minute lift up Whistler in the company of two entertaining young ski bums. After learning the ins and outs of separating female marijuana plants from their male counterparts from a man who claimed to be a Certified Panda Intern (“I got a certificate and everything, dude…from China!”), I was seriously questioning my gnarly credentials. At the peak, Olympic fever had clearly taken hold as skiers and the occasional pedestrian like me crammed around T.V.s in the cafeteria to watch the women’s half-pipe event. After sharing a beer with skiers from England and Ireland, I grabbed a few quick pictures with the Olympic Inukshuk posted on the edge of one of Whistler’s cliffs.
I then boarded the new, record-breaking Peak-to-Peak gondola for a gasp-inducing ride over the yawning chasm between Whistler and Blackcomb. Skiers ride this lift as much for the view as for the runs it allows access to. Finally, with the skeleton event inching closer, I rode a series of open-air lifts backwards down the mountain (the first time I’ve ever been on the reverse side of a ski lift…and without skis!) to catch the connecting gondola to the Whistler Sliding Centre.
The sliding centre is an awe-inspiring, frightening mass of icy twists and turns. My tickets entitled me to a frozen perch on a metal bench right at the now infamous Thunderbird corner where Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a tragic training accident only hours before the opening ceremonies. I chatted amiably with the man beside me, who turned out to be a close personal friend of Canadian medal hopeful Jeff Pain. He explained to me proudly how he and another of Pain’s friends had commissioned Pain’s iconic helmet, which is painted with the visage of “The Raging Beaver.” Then the competition began and I shivered in awe as the women hurtled around the 270 degree turn head-first on their stomachs at 145 km/h. Following the completion of the women’s first of two runs, I abandoned my seat to get closer to the track.
One of the most amazing opportunities the Olympics affords is the chance to get startlingly close to world-class athletes in the midst of their mind-boggling performances. I muscled my way to the very front of the crowd by the finish line and stood entranced as the women exited their sleds less than five feet away from me. Many acknowledged well-wishers and family in the crowd, with some even reaching over the icy edges of the track to share a high-five or hug. It was a level of personal intimacy I had never before experienced at a sporting event.
When the men took to the track for their runs, I hiked up the steep incline and squeezed myself into position just a stone’s throw from the start line. I could hear every word as coaches provided last-minute encouragement and I watched, amazed, as competitors went through their pre-run rituals, with many closing their eyes and bobbing their heads side to side as they visualized the turns on the track ahead.
The experience was incredibly moving for me. The Olympics are a sporting event with no equal and it is this very opportunity which solidifies that status in my mind. Despite the incredible ability of these athletes, they are — for lack of a better word — normal. These are not millionaire superstars being chauffeured behind a phalanx of bodyguards, agents and publicists. They wink, share smiles, joke and cry with the assembled crowd, often seemingly overwhelmed and confused by the fact that we are even there to see them. They are keenly aware that for four years, they toil in total obscurity, but for these two weeks they become titans carrying the hopes and dreams of their entire home country on their shoulders. And, for a mere $40, the Olympics give someone like me the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share it all with them.
When not jetting around the world as his alter ego, The Crime Traveller, Edward Prutschi is a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer. Follow Ed’s criminal law commentary (@prutschi) and The Crime Traveller’s adventures (@crimetraveller) on Twitter, read his Crime Traveller blog, or email <firstname.lastname@example.org.