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From the hidden cauldron to the wicked weather, it's the Olympic flame-out in Vancouver

By Tracee Hamilton
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C.

Oy, Canada!

After just four days of competition, the Vancouver Games are veering off course like a skier who caught an edge. You might not have noticed it, hunkered down back home, praying for spring. But the Games you see on TV sometimes don't reflect the real Games, those Games experienced by the host nation's residents, the spectators, the visiting dignitaries, who often outnumber the first two groups, and the media.

There have been equipment malfunctions and weather issues and ticket cancellations and safety problems. Of course, all of them are nothing compared to the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on Friday. That tragedy can't be laid at the door of Canadian organizers.

But the percolating cauldron controversy can and should. Remember that lovely outdoor cauldron that Canadian god Wayne Gretzky lit Friday night after the Opening Ceremony? I'm sure you all can see it during NBC's coverage every night, because it's visible from the International Broadcast Center, a.k.a. 30 Rock North.

However, Canadians can't see it. It's behind the media security perimeter and an unsightly chain link fence. It turns out that despite record turnout for the torch relay, organizers were still surprised to discover that visiting fans as well as Canadians might actually want to take photos with the cauldron or just make pilgrimages to the cauldron, which after all was touched by the Great One.

The cauldron issue bubbled over (really) during Tuesday's International Olympic Committee media briefing in Vancouver. Renee Smith Valade, spokesman for the local organizing committee, finally admitted that organizers perhaps had made a mistake, a landmark statement for the relentlessly positive Valade, with whom I would never trade jobs.

"Perhaps we underestimated the degree people would want to get close to it," Valade cautiously admitted.

Ironically, the complaints about these Games began with another cauldron. Because the Opening Ceremony was held indoors for the first time, organizers had two cauldrons, an Indoor Cauldron at BC Place and the somewhat unsightly Outdoor Cauldron, under lockdown at the Vancouver waterfront. (Having indoor/outdoor cauldrons is like having indoor/outdoor carpeting -- make up your mind -- but whatever.)

The Indoor Cauldron suffered a malfunction during the lighting ceremony when one of four "arms" failed to rise, leaving poor Catriona Le May Doan standing on the BC Place floor all lit up with nowhere to go. (Why they didn't have her light one of the three functioning arms along with, say, Steve Nash, I do not understand.)

That was the beginning. Then the weather began to play havoc with the Alpine schedule, wiping out the first two races on the opening weekend of the games as well as a slew of training runs, which are necessary in order to hold actual races.

Of course, the organizing committee isn't responsible for controlling the weather -- only Beijing officials even attempted that -- but Whistler has long had a dicey reputation. World Cup events scheduled there were canceled for three consecutive years because of snow and fog.

Yet organizers keep trying to spin the problems at Whistler, where only one event has been held in four days of competition, as an unfortunate anomaly. Nope, sorry. A one-time fluke is two major blizzards in less than a week in our nation's capital. Problems in Whistler were inevitable.

As were problems at Cypress Mountain, site of freestyle skiing and snowboarding, where the issue has been a lack of snow. Organizers covered the course with hay bales and dumped snow on top, but heavy rains, including Tuesday morning's, have washed much of it away. Organizers have canceled standing-room tickets for all snowboard events -- men's and women's snowboard cross, halfpipe and parallel giant slaloms. That's six events with no spectators lining the course, a total of 28,000 tickets for which organizers will have to give refunds totaling $1.5 million.

"The snow has washed away to the point people could punch through," said Caley Denton, the organizing committee's vice president of ticketing. " . . . We've had people going down up to their knees, in some case even farther. It's just not a case where we want to put spectators in any kind of unsafe position."

This is the organizers' mantra: The Games are for the athletes first, then the fans. That's absolutely right (although everyone knows the IOC membership really comes before either one of them). But fans can't get into events for which they bought tickets, and can't even see the Olympic cauldron. Athletes are competing in less than stellar conditions -- Tuesday's snowboard cross competition was a fall-riddled nightmare, and the speedskaters were less than pleased to be kept waiting to compete Monday night because of a malfunctioning ice-resurfacing machine. Or, like the Alpine skiers, they aren't competing at all, or getting in training runs, for that matter.

None of these problems on its own is huge. But none is insignificant, either, not if you're a Canadian mom trying to take your kids to see the Olympic cauldron or a speedskater forced to wait an extra hour to compete as your muscles tighten and your timing goes to hell. Yet Vancouver wants you to judge its performance not on the screwups, but on the way it handles them.

"It's a little bit like luggage," Valade said "It's not whether your luggage gets lost; it's how you deal with it."

Apparently not losing the luggage never crossed anyone's mind.

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