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Ice Dancers Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue of Canada take part in a practice session in London, Ont. Tuesday, March 12, 2013 during he The ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ice Dancers Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue of Canada take part in a practice session in London, Ont. Tuesday, March 12, 2013 during he The ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Figure skating world championships

Host London ready to be ‘poster child’ for small cities who dare to dream Add to ...

This week, it’s not just the figure skaters who are being judged in this Southern Ontario city. Justin Fidler will be scrutinized as much as anyone.

He’s an ice maker, and in his line of work, one or two degrees can make the difference between a smooth landing and grapefruit-sized chunk flying out of the ice.

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But he says he’s ready for the challenge – and so are other Londoners, who say the 2013 ISU world figure skating championships is their chance to prove their city can be a small but attractive destination for elite sporting competitions (and their influx of tourist dollars).

“We’re not just here to wow them for one particular event,” Fidler said Tuesday, shortly before 2010 Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea began her practice session at the Western Fair Sports Centre, where Fiddler works.

As competition kicks off Wednesday, figure skating fans are receiving red carpet treatment from the host community: fancy light shows, an army of keen volunteers showing them to their seats, and extra appreciation from the hometown king and queen, 2010 Olympic champion ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

“I think London is booming and people are really excited, and we’re so grateful for that,” Virtue said after wrapping up a practice session attended by hundreds of cheering fans.

The figure skating championships marks the largest sporting event London (population 360,000) has played host to – and winning the bid was a coup 13 years in the making, starting with the decision to build a new sporting arena in the city’s struggling downtown core.

“Until we built Budweiser Gardens, it wasn’t a nice place to visit,” said Janette MacDonald, manager of Downtown London, a business-improvement association. “We had a [city] council that was visionary and we’re very, very fortunate that they opted to spend this kind of money on the downtown, because it’s paying off big time.”

What’s happening in London has provided a model for other smaller Canadian cities, including Kingston and Kelowna, B.C., that are looking at sports tourism as a way to enhance their local economies, says Ken Wong, a professor at the school of business at Queen’s University.

“London has been the poster child, if you will, for most of the smaller cities doing the same thing,” he said.

The city started small, hosting local events and then national championships, including junior hockey’s Memorial Cup.

London also played host to the Canadian figure skating championships in 2005 and 2010 (both sold-out). Success from there gave the city the confidence to go after the world figure skating championships.

In previous years, top skaters have competed for world titles in glamorous cities such as Tokyo, Los Angeles, Moscow and Nice, France.

Jackie Stell-Buckingham, Skate Canada’s director of events, says London’s small size worked in its favour: In bigger North American and European cities, skaters can be met with indifference, but Southern Ontario, and London in particular, remains a hotbed of figure skating fans – due in no small part to the success of Virtue and Moir.

Skate Canada organizers – who were in charge of choosing the host city and selected London over other finalists including Quebec City, Winnipeg and Ottawa – knew its smaller size meant one important thing at a time when their sport’s popularity in North America is in steep decline: a sold-out arena.

At just less than 7,000 seats, the arena is one of the smallest venues to play host to a world championship figure skating event (in the sport’s North American heyday in the 1990s, it could fill arenas more than twice the size).

The event hasn’t been totally embraced by the population. Newspaper columnists and some locals have griped about the half-million-dollar price tag of things such as light shows and parties that won’t leave a legacy for the city. But for the most part, it feels like Londoners are really determined to put on a good show – even if not everyone notices.

“We are not really thinking about what’s around the ice rink,” French ice dancer Fabian Bourzat said Tuesday, when asked of his impressions of London. “During competition, we don’t care about what city we’re in.”

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