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Carrying a torch for a new Olympic museum

Four years ago, it was us. The torch was making its way across the country and soon, in Vancouver, there would be a cauldron malfunction, a desperate trucking of snow to Cypress and, oh yes, that gold medal hockey goal for the ages. Stephen Colbert would be broadcasting from False Creek, far away from his studio where these days he's getting major CanCon comedy mileage out of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Now the countdown is on to Sochi, and maybe you're feeling nostalgic. In Richmond, they're counting on that nostalgia to last. Plans are in full swing for a permanent Olympic attraction at the Olympic Oval. The Richmond Olympic Experience is due to open in a year. The 14,000-square-foot attraction will be a member of the International Olympic Committee's network of official Olympic Museums – the first in North America.

"We're not calling it a museum because that invokes an image of walking into a building and everything's in cases," says Jane Fernyhough, director of arts, culture and heritage services for the City of Richmond. Instead, it's designed around a journey of transformation: from the Olympic dreams of a child, to the years of preparation, the excitement of competition and the legacy the Games leave both for the athlete and the community.

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Officials say even without the attraction, in the absence of an Olympic stadium, the $170-million Richmond Olympic Oval has become a magnet for tour buses packed with people eager to check out a facility they recognize from the Vancouver Games – or at least have their picture taken outside, in front of the Olympic rings.

"There's no other real significant legacy building for the 2010 Games," says Ms. Fernyhough, who is also senior technical adviser for the Experience. "We're looking at it with an eye to an international audience."

Going back to the planning stages, there had always been the intention to create, as an Olympic legacy, a museum in the Oval to examine the history of sport in Richmond.

But it became clear that vision would have to be expanded.

"While we've had hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Oval just to see what the facility looks like because they've heard so much about it and it's really quite magnificent, that wears off," says Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie. "And you have to have attractions that will draw people in. And so the concept was developed that we would make it more than just about the history of sport in Richmond."

The attraction will be built around four main themes: the Richmond experience of the 2010 Games, the Vancouver Games overall, the Olympic movement including past Games, and (in an area that will be free to the public) the sporting history of Richmond – it's rich, Ms. Fernyhough explains, particularly in lacrosse, boxing and horse racing.

Outside, a recreation of the 2010 torch relay will lead to a cauldron-inspired work of public art. Inside, paying customers – admission, not yet set, will likely be $12 to $15 – will be invited to watch a video, then enter up a staircase to experience the 'wow' factor of the enormous facility, including its pine beetle wood ceiling. Then the bulk of the attraction, now under construction in an area once used for personal training, will offer immersive and interactive experiences about athletes and Olympic-related themes. Being part of the IOC network of museums will mean access to items from its collection, which will allow for some rotation.

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An "intense" search is also under way for Olympic-related artifacts, with Richmond officials contacting athletes from around North America, and also working on a loan from the Museum of Vancouver (MOV), which is the caretaker of the official 2010 Olympic collection.

In Vancouver, the MOV itself will likely mount an Olympic-related exhibition, but not for some time – and it will be more contemplative, rather than a straight-up educational, feel-good experience.

"What we'd actually like to do is have a little distance of time between when the Olympics occurred, so we can look at the impact on the city, because that's our interest," says MOV CEO Nancy Noble. "Eight or 10 years [after] the Olympics, we'll have a much better notion of the impact they had on the city."

The price tag for the Richmond Olympic Experience is about $5.6-million: $575,000 will come from the City, $1.5-million from the Oval Corporation (an independent municipal corporation owned by the City), $2.5-million from hotel taxes, and $1.1-million from corporate sponsorship, which has been committed, according to Richmond officials, and will soon be formally announced.

The Oval is a spectacular facility, currently used for a variety of sports. But it's hardly central, so you could be forgiven for being skeptical about tourists making their way to Richmond to check this out, especially as the trail from the Vancouver Olympics goes cold.

But Ms. Fernyhough says research into other such museums around the world shows that attendance goes up in Olympic years, and remains steady in other years.

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Mr. Brodie says he does not anticipate interest waning. He cites a visit to the ski museum at the top of a ski jump that towers over Oslo, Norway.

"People were pouring in to see that venue and to experience something about the Olympics," he says. "And that was the Olympics of 1952." (The site, which presents the history of skiing, also looks at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.)

"So I think that the Olympics themselves have a real longevity; people remain interested in it," he continues. "Yes it's not 2010 any more but I think there is a high level of local, national and international interest in the Olympics. And when people want to see something about the Olympics for 2010, the Oval is one of the first venues they're going to consider."

Editor's note: A Monday article on a new Olympic museum misspelled Cypress Mountain as Cyprus. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More


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