At the Whistler Sliding Centre, most spectators congregate inside the last, biggest, fastest turn - Turn 16, the one commentators call Thunderbird, through which sleds careen at their peak speeds in excess of 140 kilometres an hour. The inside of the curve is the size of a football field, and on race days resembles the town square of a medieval village, something Brueghel would have painted: people of all ages and sizes wearing red and white Dr. Seuss hats, in felt moose heads and Polartec Maple Leaves and flag capes, wearing storm gear and snow pants and boots of all description, speaking multiple tongues, German and Russian and Canadian and even Gaelic (the Irish have an emerald sled contending).
People ring bells and blow horns every time the rumble of a new sled approaches in the early-evening light (these races have been held at night), and their heads turn as one as the carts race by. The pagan rites of winter - bobsleigh brings them out.
From Turn 16, the fans make their way up the track, pausing as the racers hurtle by with their cargos of fast, muscular, big-boned women who add inertial mass to the sliding speed. Their upper arms are the size of cottage hams.
"I trust Kaillie with my life," Heather Moyse, the gold-winning pusher, will say later this evening of Kaillie Humphries, her driver. Bobsleigh is called a mature sport, one you come to from other sports, because you have to be 18 to do it - old enough to risk your own life.
Eventually, a spectator arrives at the start, and sees the women warming up, the coaches wiping down sled runners, the bright sleds stacked and waiting in the start house like fresh candy bars, all of it weirdly reminiscent of Cape Canaveral. A robot camera on a track follows the women as they push down the track and slip into their capsule, then returns to its starting point, an obedient little camera. Every detail is cool, fascinating. The start of a bobsleigh course is a movie set where everything has to happen at once for a moment, and is then reset for the next take.
If the spectator is lucky, it starts to snow-rain at the bottom (the athletes housed in Whistler have been calling it Pissler), but graupel and even powder up here, Swiss dots coming down in infinite numbers out of the blue black sky over the drooping, heavy-limbed giant firs that lurk behind the track, waiting to repossess its terrain. Nothing so loud and grand as a hockey game in which the artificially composed reputations of two nations are allegedly at stake. But just as unforgettable, and private.
Maybe it's the $90 T-shirts and the $1,200 baseball jackets at Whistler's Russian Olympic merchandise store; maybe it's the prices of the area's fine homes, houses advertised as being for sale during the Olympics at astronomical prices, $3.25-million, $7.95-million, and the way those numbers lurk in the air here, like fog. Maybe it's because a salad of roasted beets costs $18.50 at a Whistler restaurant called Araxi. Whatever it is, the Olympic resort of Whistler doesn't feel like it suffers from too much inner reflection. It's an extroverted culture, a tourist town looking to please as many people as possible.
Jessica, the bartender at Jamaica House (in non-Olympic times, it's a bar called The Savage Beagle), claims the visiting Olympic crowd in Whistler is different from the regular one - "a different, older" and less energetic crowd that likes "a place they can sit down and have a beer." Without them, Whistler Village - as opposed to the town proper - is so young it still eats with its hands.
"A lot of people have to work two jobs to stay here," the manager of a local restaurant says. But they look like they enjoy it anyway, the pretty women in the clubs, in their sleeveless vests and their woollen ski headbands, the uninhibited young men with their enviable energy and their lack of self-consciousness. How much fun would it have been to live that way? In Whistler, it's easy to be reminded that you never tried.
One night in a bar, a plainclothes RCMP officer told me not one but two brothels have opened up in the town for the duration of the Olympics. The Whistler police I spoke to didn't know anything about them. "But it could spring up for the duration of something like this," one said.