CALL THEM the Sea-to-Sky Games. The name comes from an expensive and essential road: the Sea-to-Sky Highway, expanded at a cost of $600 million to handle Olympic traffic between Vancouver and mountain venues at Whistler (map, above). But sea and sky will define the XXI Winter Games in other ways, literally and symbolically. A spectacular Pacific Coast setting helped Vancouver land the Olympics and shaped not only its great-place-to-live image but also its population—so heavy with immigrants, mostly from Asia, that half the metro area's 2.3 million residents speak a native language other than English. The climate too is ocean-driven. Vancouver is the warmest winter host ever (average February high: 44° F), and organizers fear that a so-called Pineapple Express front could blow in from the South Pacific and cause an Olympic meltdown (including mountain fog). Many residents see clouds in the Games themselves; that is, in the potential sky-high taxpayer bill that looms because of cost overruns and low sponsorship. Most Canadians, though, see a spirited fortnight and many home team medals: The sky is the limit.
Two hours north of the city, in the Fitzsimmons mountain range, sit a telegenic resort town, an athletes' village and a cluster of outdoor venues: the bobsled-luge-skeleton run (left), the ski jump, the Alpine slopes, the cross-country trails and the biathlon shooting range.
Besides the ceremonies at BC Place (the large dome, above) and the signature sport at Canada Hockey Place (right of dome), the city will host figure skating and short-track speedskating at the Pacific Coliseum, curling at the Vancouver Olympic Center and more hockey at the University of British Columbia's Thunderbird Arena.
The city just south of Vancouver is home to a new $178 million long-track speedskating oval that has won international design awards and will be the setting for 12 medal races.
Overlooking downtown Vancouver from less than 20 miles away, the ski area boasts the Olympic halfpipe (circled) and will host all the snowboarding and freestyle events, including the new sport of skicross (box, right).
SIX THINGS TO LIKE
From higher-flying halfpipers to a Ghanaian Alpiner, the Games will pack the 17 days with a memorable mix
1 The Snowboarders
On a halfpipe with walls 22 feet high—four feet higher than in Turin—Team USA riders (below, from left) Kelly Clark, Gretchen Bleiler, Hannah Teter, Scotty Lago, Louie Vito and Shaun White should put on a show. Defending champ White's new trick is a double McTwist 1260, which includes two front flips. Clark (gold in '02), Teter (gold in '06) and Bleiler (silver in '06) could sweep.
2 The Home Team
Canada didn't win a single event at the 1976 Montreal or 1988 Calgary Games, and earned just five medals at the latter. This year's team (whose mantra is "own the podium") should fire up the crowds with multiple golds, led by speedskaters (above, from left) Kristina Groves, Christine Nesbitt and Brittany Schussler. Moguls skier Jennifer Heil could win the first home-soil gold on Day One of competition.
3 The Snow Leopard
Ghana has neither mountains nor snow, but it does have its first Olympic skier. Former safari guide Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, 35, qualified in slalom and giant slalom just five years after taking up the sport while working at an indoor ski area in England. The so-called Snow Leopard (who hopes to raise money to save that animal from extinction) has no delusions of winning a medal; he's out to avoid last place.
4 The Curling
The Games' oddest sport is huge in Canada, where more than a million people compete in it. The home fans expect men's and women's gold, but a surprising challenger will be China's women's team, featuring former gymnasts (above, from left) Zhou Yan, Liu Yin and Yue Qingshuang. The Chinese are making their Olympic curling debut a year after winning the world title. Their coach? A Canadian.
5 The New Sport
You think snowboardcross is wild? Wait until you see the new Olympic sport of skicross, in which four skiers race in a pack at up to 65 mph down a course filled with turns, jumps and moguls. Fast starts are key, crashes are common, and at times only one racer stays on his feet all the way to the finish line. In fact, top U.S. hopes Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett both were hurt in pre-Olympic crashes.
6 The Record Hunt
In two Games short-track speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno has won five medals, tying him with Eric Heiden for the most by a U.S. male Winter Olympian. He'll have four events in which to try to equal or surpass Bonnie Blair's record (six) for any U.S. Winter Olympian. As he proved in winning Dancing with the Stars in 2007, the man with the soul patch can handle the pressure.
Chip Brown goes behind the scenes with the dynamic new sport of skicross at SI.com/olympics
Photographs by Simon Bruty and Robert Beck (snowboarders)
Maps by International Mapping Associates
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES (RICHMOND)
TOUSSAINT KLUITERS/UNITED PHOTOS/REUTERS (CANADIAN SKATERS)
MIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES (SNOW LEOPARD)
LEE JAE-WON/REUTERS (CURLING)
CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY IMAGES (SKICROSS)
DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGES (OHNO)