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Winter Pride survives Olympic sandwich

Attendance drops but participants enjoy gay ski week

STEAMY WINTER INTERLUDE. Cover models Mark Wolf and Sean Lee enjoy a hot soak after a day on the slopes. Credit: Brandon Gaukel photo

This year, sandwiched in the 13 days between the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, all signs pointed to Canada’s largest and best-attended gay ski week being stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Again.

Having survived several changes in ownership and some rocky economic moments in the last few years, the WinterPride phoenix that soared so high in 2009 appeared to be threatened by a new set of serious challenges in 2010.

As anticipated, strict restrictions from Vancouver’s Olympic organizing committee (VANOC) limited the availability of venue space for WinterPride events in and around Whistler, and holding WinterPride in March instead of January meant the festival would have to compete with other gay travel hotspots like the Sydney Mardi Gras and the Miami Beach Winter Party.

There were also the lingering effects of the 2008 global economic downturn and strong Canadian dollar to consider, as well as the Olympic burnout factor, which prevented many Vancouver weekend warriors from making the trek to Whistler.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mother Nature wasn’t feeling too cooperative either: the unseasonably warm weather that plagued the Olympics lingered, leaving less-than-desirable ski conditions on both the Whistler and Blackcomb mountain runs.

As I geared up for my Mar 4–7 visit to WinterPride to take in the last half of this year’s week-long festival, I wondered whether there would be any gays and lesbians in the resort to greet me when I arrived.

Like last year, rainbow flags were the first thing I noticed as we pulled into Whistler Village. Followed, thankfully, by large groups of gay travellers strolling around the resort.

“This year was much more complicated,” admits Dean Nelson, CEO of Alpenglow Productions, which now produces WinterPride.

Nelson estimates that this year’s gay ski week attendance dropped to 1,500 people, down from approximately 2,500 the year before.

Still, he says he did meet a few people who extended their Olympic stay to include WinterPride.

“What was more interesting was the number of local LGBT members who came out for the first time because of Pride House,” he notes. “They enjoyed the space and came out to experience the festival as a result.”

In addition to Pride House (the groundbreaking gay space Nelson created for the Olympics), large promotional banners throughout the ski resort and a 10-foot-tall, four-sided WinterPride placard displayed prominently in Whistler’s main thoroughfare boosted the profile of this year’s gay ski week with Whistler’s influx of tourists.

However, in contrast to last year’s festival programming, which included the Mr Gay World competition and its related day and evening teaser events, I had more difficulty meeting gays and lesbians outside of the après ski and night parties.

But nothing was going to keep Carl Roberts and his gay ski club away from Whistler this year.

“We have been planning this trip for years,” the 52-year-old engineer from Chicago tells me through sunlit hot-tub steam at the Coast Blackcomb Suites.

“It is so beautiful here. And although we didn’t plan on coming because of the Olympics, seeing the venues and infrastructure left over in Whistler were an added bonus,” he says.

Roberts was surprised at how many Americans he met in Whistler, though he was hoping to meet more tourists from other parts of the world.

Daryl Kochan, a 44-year-old insurance industry executive and a hockey player with Vancouver’s gay Cutting Edges team, has regularly attended gay ski week in Whistler over the course of its 18-year history. He echoes Roberts’ sentiment.

On the bus ride back from a backcountry snowmobiling trek, Kochan tells me there were way more international visitors here 10 years ago than this year.

“This one still feels like it’s reviving. Four years ago, after WinterPride was sold to new owners, it was quite dead,” he says.

For Kochan and many other repeat visitors I spoke to over the weekend, the new ownership has breathed fresh life into Whistler’s gay ski week.

“I can’t believe how well organized it is,” Kochan remarks. “It’s way better than any prior years I’ve gone. You see the sponsorship more, the website is easier to get through and [there are] way more events. Before, it used to be just one or two events, but now it’s so inclusive for lesbians especially and for the men.”

The allure of WinterPride is still strongest, perhaps, for its first-time visitors, like Mr Gay World 2010 winner Charl van den Berg, who was in Whistler as an ambassador for the festival and intends to return next year.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this big. I’ve never seen so many guys in one spot,” he said. “I always thought the gay scene was the same across the world. I was completely proven wrong when I came to Canada. Guys are guys’ guys here — I’ve never seen so many beards in my life — and Canadian guys are the nicest guys I’ve ever met.”