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Push to the finish line pits Olympics against humans and Mother Nature

VANCOUVER, B.C. - As International Olympic Committee members begin to arrive in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, they're being confronted by headlines they may rather not see.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - As International Olympic Committee members begin to arrive in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics, they're being confronted by headlines they may rather not see.

One mountain venue is bereft of snow. Two other mountains key to the Games may soon be up for sale.

Transportation plans are still frustrating local organizers with not enough people buying tickets to get to the mountain venues and still more not yet buying into the idea of cutting back on car travel during the Games.

The fact that Intrawest - which owns the site of the alpine events on Whistler mountain and the sliding centre on Blackcomb - may go up for sale during the Olympics poses no immediate threat to the Games.

"It's a long process, it's a process that takes months. Given all of that, we're very confident that the Games will go on at those two venues in Whistler, and they'll go on with the co-operation of the people that are running the mountain," Dan Doyle, the executive vice-president in charge of construction for the Games told reporters in Vancouver following the local organizing committee's final board meeting.

But with just over three weeks to go until the Games, the challenges posed by weather and transportation are another story - albeit not a surprising one.

"It's the usual suspects," said Canadian IOC member Richard Pound, who also sits on the board of directors for the organizing committee known as VANOC.

Weather has stymied almost every single Winter Games in the last forty years with either too much snow or not enough forcing the delay of events.

Transportation in the cities and to the mountains is also always an issue, said Pound.

"You're taking big buses, because you don't want to have six million cars going up there, but the roads are small and mountainous and you've got to be careful managing that flow," he said.

For weather, organizers always have a Plan B. In the case of Cypress Mountain on Vancouver's North Shore, they will use straw and wood to build the courses for freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, and then truck or fly in snow from other parts of the mountain to cover it.

It will work, and has in the past, though it might not be so pretty.

"If we have to, we will clean up the outside by using gravel or something else so that the site is beautiful for the athletes and what's on TV for the spectator experience," said John Furlong, VANOC's chief executive officer.

Up at Whistler, snow is not the problem. The host mountain resort saw 70 centimetres of snow fall over 24 hours last weekend.

Still, the committee was sideswiped Wednesday by news that the mountain's owner, Intrawest, might be going up for sale.

The Vancouver-based company, which is owned by private equity firm Fortress Investment Group LLC, reportedly missed payments last month that were due on a US$1.4-billion loan.

The group of lenders, which includes Lehman Brothers and Davidson Kempner, hope for a speedy sale of Intrawest in one transaction.

But the Games aren't expected to be affected.

"It doesn't make very good business sense for people to put them out of business at the time of the year when they're making their most earnings," said Doyle.

In fact, organizers say that Whistler mountain is having such a good season that VANOC hasn't needed to pay out one cent to compensate for any negative impact the Games are having on the mountain's operations.

Getting spectators to the mountains, however, remains an issue.

"We're still struggling with ticket holders both for Whistler and for Cypress," said Terry Wright, vice president of transportation for the committee.

Only 50 per cent of ticket holders have bought seats on the mandatory bus up to Cypress or the service VANOC is offereing to Whister, and the committee is now resorting to phoning ticket holders who haven't purchased seats.

Leaving the purchase of the seats to the last minute isn't a viable option, said Wright.

"If it's a rush to those park and rides on day of, we won't be able to move everybody on to the buses quick enough," he said.

A delay could create a cascade of problems, from gluts at security checkpoints to slowing down the actual start of events.

Organizers also said Wednesday they needed to do more work to get traffic volumes into the downtown core reduced by at least 30 per cent.

The city has issued a "Friday challenge" to encourage residents to use each Friday until the Games to test-drive their plans. At the end of the first full week of data collection for the challenge, only four per cent of drivers left their cars at home.

While none of the issues are surprising ones, the fact remains that the clock is ticking down towards these Games.

"It's been a wonderful journey we've been on, we've come a long way, we've dealt with many challenges and obstacles along that journey," Rusty Goepel, the chairman of VANOC's board told reporters.

"The board is very confident that management and our partners are well prepared to meet the extrarodinary day to day challenges of hosting the Games and ready to make Canadians proud."