If you were in Whistler in February or March 2010 (or any time during the multi-year lead up), there was no missing that Whistler was acting as the host resort for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. While Whistler continues to host international competitions today, races rarely saturate the valley in the same way. This was not the case, however, when Whistler first began hosting World Cup Downhill races over forty years ago.
Despite being cancelled, Whistler’s first World Downhill race on March 7, 1979, still drew a large crowd to watch the racers fly down hill “unofficially.” In 1982, when Whistler’s first successful World Downhill race ended on the north side of Whistler Mountain, thousands of people crowded into Village Square to congratulate the winners. Looking back at copies of the Whistler Question from 1983 and 1984, it quickly become apparent that Whistler had big plans for the Molson World Downhill in March 1984.
The Molson World Downhill in Whistler was more than just a race; it was also the centrepiece of a multi-day festival called Winterfest. With more than 20,000 visitors expected for the race, Winterfest aimed to extend the World Cup excitement in the valley and attract spectators to stay beyond the day of the race.
Winterfest was organized in just a matter of months by a committee including Drew Meredith, Brain Moran, Tony Formby, June Paley, Kathie Hicks and Val Lang. In January 1984, the group was still trying to secure a space to hold the larger Winterfest events. They estimated that they needed to be able to accommodate between 1,600 and 2,000 people and wanted space for a 225 m2 dance floor and a beer garden. While today the Whistler Conference Centre would be an obvious choice, the convention centre was still under construction. Winterfest even thought of using the unfinished building but WLC Developments decided that the safety of the public could not be guaranteed. Instead, Winterfest began looking for a place to erect an 1,100 m2 tent, finally settling on the parking lot of the Whistler Golf Course. Other smaller tents were also place throughout the Village.
Winterfest ran from March 5 to 11, with the Molson World Downhill taking place on Sunday, March 11. Winterfest events included an art show at the Blackcomb Lodge featuring local artists, a Winterfest Queen competition, a torchlight parade and fireworks display, a casino night, and performances from Doug and the Slugs at the main dance floor. There were also helicopter tours, a cross-country race, barrel staves races, and even a Samsonite Suitcase Race on Blackcomb Mountain. For the celebrities who took part in the suitcase race, Saturday night featured the Winterfest Grand Ball with food provided by restaurateur Umberto Menghi in the “Myrtle Philip Ballroom,” also known as the school gym.
Even before Winterfest began, there was a lot of excitement in the valley around the Molson World Downhill. There was a weekly countdown to the race in the Question featuring articles on different race-related topics, from the racers themselves to the timing equipment that had been used at the Olympic Winter Games in Sarajevo earlier that year. When asked who they thought would win the race, Whistler residents had thoughtful opinions that showed that many of them were familiar with at least the top racers from various countries. The local choir, the Whistler Singers, had even learnt the national anthems of the competing nations so that they could be ready to perform at the opening and closing ceremonies no matter who won.
We’ll be taking a closer look at different features of the 1984 Winterfest and World Cup Downhill over the next while – if you have a favourite memory of the events, please let us know at the Whistler Museum!