Saturday, 22 February 2014

Winter Whistler

If ever a Winter Gay Games or Outgames were to be organised one of the leading candidates for the first host city would surely be Whistler in British Colombia, Canada. It has a well-established place in international sports history as being the co-host of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games and a host of other world sports festivals, including the summer Gay Games and Outgames. But what Whistler also has is a long history of a highly successful annual lgbt (non-competitive) winter sport festival, currently known as WinterPRIDE.

From its modest beginnings in 1992 WinterPRIDE has grown into an internationally renowned event attended by several thousand people (on a par with the Winter Olympics) with highly popular après ski entertainment. But it nearly collapsed through tragedy ten years ago when it’s founder and organiser Brent Benaschak died unexpectedly.

It all began when the state of Colorado introduced legislation which allowed employees and landlords  to discriminate against members of the lgbt community. Colorado was the home of the highly popular gay ski week at the famous Aspen resort. Brent Benaschak had been to the Aspen event several times but in 1992 he wondered why he’d want to visit Colorado and spend his cash to the benefit of a state that openly discriminated against gay men. Many American skiers are said to have boycotted Aspen in 1993.

At the time Brent was director of his own travel company called Out of the Slopes which specialised in skiing holidays. He also owned a Bed-and-Breakfast house with his partner on Fire Island in New York State. Having had a love of skiing from the age of 16 Brent owned another Bed-and-Breakfast house in Whistler, and encouraged his Fire Island guests to stay at his Whistler house rather than go to Aspen.

Brent came up with the idea of a gay ski week in Whistler. He gave it the name Altitude. That first event over one weekend in January 1993 attracted less than a hundred people but it was successful enough for Brent to decide to produce another.

Altitude quickly became a popular event with attendance figures rising each year. The city of Whistler itself welcomed this new addition to its winter calendar. Brent collected together a handful of staff to help organise the event and with the help of up to a hundred volunteers Altitude looked in good shape when the unexpected happened.

Brent Benashack died on 30th December 2003, just one month before the next Altitude was due to begin. The circumstances surrounding his death from a fall from his apartment were not certain, but at the age of 41 it came as a big shock.

The whole future of Altitude was thrown into doubt. The most pressing question was could the event go ahead as planned? Would Brent’s family, who had now inherited Out of the Slopes, Brett’s travel business which owned the rights to Altitude, be happy for it to proceed? The family was happy for Altitude 2004 to go ahead but after that they wanted to hand it over to another company. Enter Lee Bergeron.

Lee Bergeron was a San Diego-based businessman who had been coming to Altitude for several years and offered to buy Out on the Slopes and Altitude from the Benaschack family. Negotiations and legal paperwork took eleven months to complete during which time Bergeron set about organising Altitude 2005.

It was a fraught handover for those who had been involved in organising previous Altitudes as various accusations of blocked bids and secrecy flew around Bergeron’s purchase. Despite, perhaps, having the best of intentions Bergeron found Altitude difficult to control from his San Diego base and decided to stop producing it.

Back in Whistler itself a group of people who had helped Benaschak organise the pre-2005 events banded together to save Altitude. In just 12 days they put together a business plan and successfully bought the event from Bergeron. They formed a new company called Alpenglow Productions which has run the event since 2006.

In partnership with Vancouver Pride and Altitude became WinterPRIDE. The regeneration of the event came at a perfect time. In 2010 the Olympic Games came to Vancouver and Whistler, and the team who produced WinterPRIDE organised the first official Pride House venues at the Olympic and Paralympic Games (an lgbt centre organised at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics was a much smaller venture). The venues for the Vancouver Pride House provided a massive boost to both the lgbt community in the area and showed the Olympic movement what level of lgbt support for the games there was in the community.

Sandwiched between the Olympic and Paralympic Games WinterPRIDE 2010 welcomed many more athletes from around the world and ensured its continued success, with several events having to be moved to larger venues in subsequent years.

Perhaps the time is right for Whistler to offer its services to host a one-off joint Winter Out/Gay Games?

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