Image: Countdown clock
Rob Lovitt
The official countdown clock outside the Vancouver Art Gallery works tallies the seconds, minutes, hours and days until the 2010 Winter Games.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/6/2007 12:38:25 PM ET 2007-03-06T17:38:25

Set in a plaza outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, the official countdown clock for the 2010 Winter Olympics doesn’t make a sound, but it’s definitely ticking.

The 20-foot-high clock was unveiled on February 12, exactly three years before the Games are set to begin in this gleaming waterfront city. As the flashing LED display counts down the seconds, minutes, hours and days until the opening ceremonies, the clock is a striking reminder that the 17-day celebration of sports is fast approaching.

The 2010 Olympics may be three years off, but the preparations have been underway ever since Vancouver was awarded the Games in July 2003. From a new speed-skating oval in Richmond, south of the city, to on-mountain improvements at Whistler, site of the alpine events, the Games’ construction budget alone now stands at $580 million.

And that doesn’t include the $3 billion or more being in invested in hotels, highways, and transportation systems. Taken together, it’s a monumental effort designed to accommodate the 5,000 athletes and officials, 10,000 members of the media and hundreds of thousands of spectators who will arrive in February 2010.

But why wait until then? Vancouver is already a vibrant, exciting destination, and the pre-Olympics build-up only adds to the buzz. True, some of the venues are still holes in the ground, but several others are already open to the public. If you’re in the area any time soon, here’s what you can expect:

BC Place
Midway between downtown and the future athletes’ village on False Creek, BC Place Stadium will host the Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies, as well as many of the Games’ medal presentations. With more than 55,000 seats and an inflatable, Teflon-coated roof, it’s considered the largest air-supported domed stadium in the world.

The 2010 Games will be the first Olympics to feature indoor opening and closing ceremonies — expect Cirque du Soleil–like productions — and the 24-year-old stadium will likely receive a facelift before the torch is lit. In the meantime, upcoming events include the Rogers Playdome (March 17–22), Canada’s largest indoor carnival, and the Vancouver International Auto Show (March 31–April 8). Come June 15, it’s all about touchdowns and pass rushes as the CFL’s B.C. Lions kick off their 2007 season.

General Motors Place
This 18,600-seat stadium next to BC Place will host the Games’ major hockey events. (A second, smaller facility will be located at the University of British Columbia, in the city’s Endowment Lands area.)

Fortunately, hockey fans don’t have to wait until 2010 as the stadium, aka GM Place or simply The Garage, also serves as home ice for the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. And since countries around the world typically fill their national team rosters from the ranks of the NHL, there’s a good chance a few future Olympians will be on the ice on any given night.

Cypress Mountain
With five chairlifts and 1,710 vertical feet, Cypress Mountain will never be confused with Whistler. Then again, the resort is only 30 minutes from downtown Vancouver, making it a convenient venue for the Games’ snowboarding and freestyle events.

Visitors with Olympic dreams can get a preview of the snowboarding events by dropping into runs like Fork and Gully which will eventually host the parallel giant slalom, halfpipe and snowboard cross (aka boardercross) events. Alas, the Olympic halfpipe hasn’t been built yet, but anyone who has ever raced a few friends down a twisting, rolling trail can create their own boardercross any day of the week.

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The freestyle events, which include moguls and aerials, will take place on a recently cut run on the southeast flank of Black Mountain. The slope is currently closed to the public, but a new chairlift and nine new runs set to open next season will give an up-close look at what’s to come.

Other venues
The Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) is also overseeing the building or renovating of several other competition sites around the metropolitan area. A new speed skating oval is under construction in Richmond; a new curling facility has just broken ground in Cambie, and the existing Pacific Coliseum should see major upgrades in anticipation of the figure skating and short track speed skating events.

The Games have also helped fast-track a slew of other construction projects designed to accommodate visitors. Several new luxury hotels (e.g., Shangri-La Vancouver, Fairmont Pacific Rim) are already taking shape in the city center, while construction continues apace on a new 19-kilometer light-rail link between the airport and downtown. Meanwhile, the Sea to Sky Highway is in the midst of a $600-million upgrade that should substantially tame the sometimes white-knuckle trip to Whistler.

Whistler, after all, played a major role in Vancouver’s successful bid for the Olympics, and the resort is already gearing up for the Games’ alpine, cross-country and sliding events. But that’s a story for next week’s column.

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