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Whistler lacks 'Olympic fever,' and she's sick of it

rmickleburgh@globeandmail.com

Olympian luge athlete Regan Lauscher has ripped into folks in the alpine ski resort of Whistler for making her feel unwanted and unloved as she trains for her event at the 2010 Winter Games.

In a startlingly candid blog posted yesterday on CTV's Olympic website, Ms. Lauscher said she feels as if she is preparing to race at a home Games "in a place that feels nothing like home."

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The seven-time Canadian luge champion, who is coming back from surgery last year to both shoulders, said she is in the best physical shape of her life.

"My biggest challenge at the moment is surviving life in British Columbia," Ms. Lauscher wrote after training for less than a week in Whistler, site of the Olympic luge competition.

"To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what the people in Whistler dislike more, the fact that I'm Albertan, or that I'm a participant in their perceived 'Olympic abomination.' "

Ms. Lauscher, a native of Red Deer, stressed that most Whistler residents are giving her "tons of encouragement." But there was a "distinct group of people who haven't caught that metaphorical 'Olympic' fever."

She concluded her blog with the question: "Why the hate?"

Ms. Lauscher was not specific about what caused her to feel so much hostility, other than a reference to an apparent incident at the municipal sports centre where she and other athletes were accused of being "too aggressive" in their use of gym equipment.

Her sentiments are bound to ruffle feathers in the tightly knit resort community, where there has long been an undercurrent of resentment toward the Olympics for leaving a big footprint and disrupting Whistler's laid-back rhythm.

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The statements also introduce an element of controversy to the Games at a time when Olympic organizers are hoping to galvanize good feelings across the country with the launch of the torch relay later this month.

In Whistler, however, most said those apparently giving Ms. Lauscher a hard time did not reflect overall sentiment in the village.

Mayor Ken Melamed apologized on behalf of the community if some residents "took away from her ability to focus on the task before her. I know that the Games are not popular with everyone. There are voices of criticism and malcontents.

"But the reality is that the Whistler community is behind her and support her," said Mr. Melamed, a one-time Olympic critic himself.

At the same time, he urged Olympic athletes training in Whistler not to paint all residents with the same brush. "There are simply a few people on a soapbox who blame the Olympics for all kinds of the world's ills."

Whistler Councillor Eckhard Zeidler said Ms. Lauscher may be experiencing the same "fear and loathing" that many residents are feeling as the Games approach. "There's a lot of tension and uncertainty about what might go wrong. Hers is a very personal blog, and this seems like a bit of a crying-out."

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Mr. Zeidler, who doesn't count himself as a big Olympic booster, said he nonetheless disagrees that residents are hostile to the athletes.

"We are a community filled with athletes, and we understand it's an emotional roller-coaster. I hope she starts to feel more at home here. She is so welcome."

Echoed Steve Edwards, director of the Araxi Restaurant and a long-time Whistlerite: "That's not the Whistler I know at all. Some residents are against the Olympics, but attitudes are staring to change. People are really getting into the Olympic spirit."

Bob Barrett, editor of the community newspaper The Pique, said a number of local irritants have sparked some opposition to the coming Games, such as placing a transit facility in an environmentally sensitive area, and putting 1,500 private security workers in a new housing development.

"But she's talking about outright anger and hostility. That's not something I've seen or heard."

Ms. Lauscher, who will celebrate her 30th birthday during the Olympics, is the first Canadian to win a World Cup medal in luge, an event dominated for years by athletes from Germany.

She could not be reached yesterday for a comment.

In her controversial blog, the holder of a degree in journalism is not without a sense of humour.

"I feel like if I'm not in snowboard boots, on a committee to save endangered squirrels or addressing the coffee barista by name, then I'm not welcome," she wrote.

"And it's not like we are trying to take over the town. We live humble little luger lives."

With a report from Rebecca Lindell

***

Whistler's murmurs of Olympic discontent

Amid the frenzy of preparations leading up to the Games in February, Whistler has also been the centre of anti-Olympic chatter from residents who would be quite happy to see the multibillion-dollar sporting event play out somewhere other than their backyards.

Back-and-forth debates have ensued in the letters sections of Whistler's local weeklies, the Question and Pique newsmagazine, on the merits of the Games and whether the 10,000-person community will benefit, in the long run, from the onslaught.

But that doesn't mean Olympic athletes aren't welcome in the city, said Whistler lawyer and former councillor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. She takes umbrage at luger Regan Lauscher's claim that cranky locals are raining on their Olympic parade.

"I'd be very disappointed if athletes and visitors who are coming here in the pre-game lead-up have any sense of less than a full welcome," she said.

"We're a tourist town, so we survive on visitors coming here and coming back and telling other people to come here."

Ms. Wilhelm-Morden has been a vocal opponent of the games' presence in Whistler, but argues there should be room for critical debate even in the dizzying runup to the Olympics themselves.

"We can criticize the phenomenon known as the Olympics but still welcome and support every single visitor who comes here during the Olympics and every single athlete who competes here," she said. She pointed to millions of tax dollars being spent at the local level, and billions more at the provincial and national levels, as objectionable Olympic expenditures, but added that they don't elicit hostility towards the athletes now descending en masse on Whistler.

"How is spending $2-billion on security all about the athletes?"

Anna Mehler Paperny

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