Category Archives: Olympics

A dream from the very beginning of Whistler.

Volunteers of 2010: The Weasel Workers

This past month, the Whistler Museum opened a temporary exhibit on the Sea to Sky volunteers of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The exhibit will run through March as Whistler continues to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Paralympic Games.  One of the groups included in this exhibit is a group that formed well before the Games ever came to Whistler.

The Weasel Workers formed in the 1970s when Bob Parsons bad his crew of six prepped the course for the first World Cup Downhill races in Whistler.  Most of the early volunteers were parents of Whistler Mountain Ski Club members, but membership grew over the years as Weasels continued to work on the courses for large races on Whistler and began sending volunteers to help build courses for World Cups, World Championships, and Winter Olympics on other mountains.  When the Games were awarded to Whistler and Vancouver in 2003, the Weasel Workers began recruiting and building their team well in advance of the alpine events held on Whistler Mountain.

Weasels on the course with no sign of the sun. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

During the 2010 Games, the number of Weasel Workers swelled to about 1,500 volunteers.  Volunteers came from across Canada and other nations to join a core group of 400 to 500 volunteers from Vancouver and the Sea to Sky area.  About 300 volunteers worked specifically for the Paralympics, and a couple hundred Weasel Workers volunteered to work for both the Olympics and Paralympics.  Weasel volunteers began their work for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) on Whistler Mountain as early as mid-November 2008 and continued to clean the courses well after the Games had left town.

Even during the Games, the Weasels continued to be a family affair.  Bunny Hume, who began volunteering the with Weasels with her husband Dick in the early 1980s when their grandsons began ski racing, volunteered alongside multiple family members.  She handed out and collected race bibs, her son Rick was the Chief of Course for the women’s course, and her grandsons Jeff and Scott worked on the dye crew.  Rick’s wife Lynne also worked as a Weasel during the Paralympics.

Weasel Workers working on the downhill course for the Olympics. Photo: Lance the Ski Patroller

Some of the Weasel Workers who began volunteering as ski club parents even had children competing in the Games.  Long-time Weasel Andrée Janyk, who could often be found working on a course with a smile, saw two of her children, Britt and Mike, race in the Olympics in their hometown.

Karl Ricker, also a long-time dedicated Weasel Worker, was on the mountain trying to prevent people from crossing where the winch-cats were working when he received the news that Maëlle Ricker, his daughter, had won a gold medal in snowboard-cross on Cypress Mountain and become the first Canadian woman to claim an Olympic gold on home soil.  He went down to Vancouver to attend her medal ceremony, but was back at work on the course early the next morning.

Despite rain, wet snow, and warm weather over the first few days of the Games, and the postponement of three races, the Weasel Workers created and maintained courses for the men’s, women’s, and Paralympic alpine races that were seen around the world in 2010, and those who came to Whistler to work with the Weasels became just as much a part of the team as the long-time volunteers.  Patrick Maloney, then the Weasel president, told The Whistler Question that, “Anybody that’s on that track is a Weasel Worker.”  This sentiment was echoed by Weasel Worker Colin Pitt-Taylor, who claimed that, “as soon as you started working on an alpine course, you became a Weasel Worker, whether you like it or not.”

“Ask Me! I’m a Local” and the 2010 Games

It is well established that Whistler residents have a strong history of volunteering, both for major events and more regularly within the community.

Perhaps the largest event put on in Whistler with the help of volunteers was the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which required hundreds of volunteers each day.  One specific volunteer program that was in place during the 2010 Games was Ask Me! I’m a Local.

The Ask Me! program was conceived by Whistler resident Janis McKenzie and her visiting friend Dan Perdue over a cup of coffee in January 2009.

The idea was simple: connect friendly, button-wearing locals to visitors who might need some help.  Local residents would sign up to wear an Ask Me! button while in the Whistler Village, and the button would identify them as someone visitors could approach to ask directions of, make recommendations, or even take a photo (though selfies were becoming increasingly popular, front-facing cameras on phones were not as common as they are today).

Ask Me! I’m a Local program creators stand with Sumi, the 2010 Paralympic Games mascot. Photo courtesy of Janis McKenzie.

McKenzie approached the RMOW, which agreed to fund the program, and got to work developing it so it would be in place by 2010.  According to the Ask Me! strategic plan, “[Whistler is] a community that prides itself on being friendly and reaching out to help our visitors in their native tongue.  We do this because we genuinely care and know that the experience our guests have will define our future.”  Unlike official Olympic volunteers with the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (VANOC), this program did not require a set number of shifts often lasting eight to ten hours.  This meant that residents could volunteer and act as ambassadors for Whistler simply by walking through town wearing their button.

To recruit volunteers and raise awareness of the program, a launch party was planned for October 1, 2009.  While McKenzie said they hoped to have 80 to 100 people attend and sign up, over 200 people lined up to attend the party at the GLC.  Those who signed up for a button at the party were entered into a draw prize and were eligible to win a season pass donated by Whistler Blackcomb, who also covered all of the costs for the party.

According to McKenzie, over 600 people had registered for buttons by the time of the Games.  The buttons were available in five languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Japanese), and businesses could also take part by displaying a decal in their window.

Joan Richoz poses proudly with her Ask Me! I’m a Local button during the 2010 Games. Photo courtesy of Claire Johnson.

Though organizers originally thought that few participants would want extra training, over 80 per cent of participants registered for in-person training and over 90 per cent registered to receive a monthly newsletter in order to learn more about Whistler.

The success of the simple grassroots program was recognized in the media and the idea spread, with Vancouver introducing its own version of the program for the Games, and Russian representatives asking about it ahead of their own Games.

Though the Ask Me! buttons can no longer be seen, many of its duties are now carried out by the Village Host program.  McKenzie described the program as “an incredible journey” that exceeded all expectations.  Throughout the Games locals could be found in Whistler proudly wearing their buttons, answering questions, and giving directions to the thousands of visitors and participants of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  The main idea behind the program remains relevant in Whistler today: “It’s the smallest things we do that will make the biggest difference for our guests’ experience.”

Building the Spirit: Whistler’s Volunteers of the 2010 Games

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the Whistler Museum presents our latest temporary exhibit, featuring stories and artefacts of the volunteers and community members who made the Games a unique experience in Whistler.  Join us opening night to share your own tales of 2010 and show off your Olympic memorabilia (we’re betting a lot of you still have those red mitts and blue coats)!

Doors open at 6:30 pm, Friday, February 28.  Free admission.

Catering (cash bar and complimentary snacks) provided by the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre with the support of the RMOW.

Exhibit closes April 19.

Celebrating Whistler’s Olympic Milestones

Over the coming weeks, there will be plenty of opportunities in Whistler to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games (including the Whistler Museum’s next temporary exhibit highlighting the volunteers of the Games, opening Friday, February 28!).  While many people may still be wondering how a decade has passed, this week we took a look even further back, to when the first Olympic bid was submitted by the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association (GODA) sixty years ago.

Following the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, a group from Vancouver very quickly organized a committee to explore the idea of hosting the Games in the Garibaldi Park region.  The California Games ended on February 28, and in March GODA invited Sidney Dawes, the Canadian representative to the International Olympic Committee, to assist in the search for an Olympic venue. Cliff Fenner, the Park Supervisor for Garibaldi Park, also assisted in the search, which included reconnaissance flights, snowmobile explorations, and test skiers.  London Mountain (now known as Whistler Mountain) was chosen as “a highly desirable area”, and by November 1960 GODA had put together a bid for the 1968 Olympic Winter Games which would have seen all events take place within the Whistler valley.

A group heads out to explore Garibaldi Park in search of an Olympic site, 1960. Cliff Fenner Collection

Creating a bid for the chosen site meant planning to build an entire Olympic site from scratch.  Alta Lake, as the area was known at the time, was comprised of a few lodges, summer cabins, and logging operations.  The valley was accessible by rail and courageous drivers could make their way up via service roads in the summer.  According to the 1968 bid book, prior to exploring possible Olympic sites, the provincial government had already spoken publicly of extended the highway that ran from North Vancouver to Squamish further north to Pemberton.

Other services we often take for granted today had also not yet reached Alta Lake.  The list of venues and facilities to be built in the valley for 1968 included not just sporting venues, but also a water supply system, sewers, sewage disposal, a substation for power supply, a fire station, and a hospital.

An official pamphlet promoting GODA’s 1968 Olympic bid.

Though the prospect of building all of this was daunting, in the bid book GODA pointed out that it had been done before, for the British Empire and Commonwealth Games that were held in Vancouver in 1954.  As they put it, “Here, too, a project was begun with nothing more than an idea, a desire to hold the event here, and an enthusiasm that made the project become a reality… Given the go-ahead, work will begin to transform the Whistler Mountain area into one of the finest sites ever developed for the Olympic Winter Games.”

This site became the gondola base, today known as Creekside, but before 1965 it was pretty bare. Wilhelmsen Collection

As we know, the 1968 Olympic Winter Games were not held on Whistler Mountain (they were held in Grenoble, France), but that did not mean that all of the work of surveying, planning, and negotiating with provincial powers was for nought.  Instead, GODA formed a sister organization, Garibaldi Lifts Ltd., to develop Whistler Mountain as a ski resort, Olympics or not.

Like the bid for 1968, a tremendous amount of work was done in a relatively short time in order to open Whistler Mountain for skiing in January 1966.  The ideas and enthusiasm of GODA were finally fulfilled in 2010 and, though it took muck longer and looked very different that they had first planned, it five decades the Whistler Mountain area had been significantly transformed.