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Olympic medal podium designed by man from Wichita

A Wichitan's work will be seen around the world Saturday when the first snow sports medals are presented at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Michael Downs, who calls himself a "director of environments," designed the Whistler Medals Plaza for the mountain resort near Vancouver, British Columbia.

Whistler is the site for the Olympics' snow sports, and the plaza is one of two medals-presentation sites that will be used nightly. The other is in Vancouver.

Downs, 46, had to sign a nondisclosure contract that keeps him from revealing much about the plaza or sharing photos of it, but he said it had to accommodate the medals ceremonies and the concerts that will follow them.

"All I can say is it's an outdoor stage," he said by phone from Whistler, where he's been for much of the past month. He said he's working as art director or designer on a dozen other Olympic venues as well.

Downs is a graduate of Southeast High School and attended Wichita State University before getting his theater design degree from Boston University.

Rather than limiting himself to theater set designs, he ventured into designing for the corporate world, from airport kiosks to trade show displays and product launches to Democracy Plaza, used for NBC's coverage of the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections.

His projects have taken him all over the world and allowed him to collaborate with people who've become lifelong friends, he said.

Downs was invited to take on the Olympics job through a colleague he worked with about 10 years ago on the Bassmaster Classic on ESPN. She moved on to the X Games and then to the Olympics. Downs was hired in July, the "last minute" for an event more than four years in the making, he said.

Downs has offices in New York and California, "but I live in Wichita," he said. He has returned to his hometown throughout his career and last year married a woman from north-central Kansas; they settled in Wichita. "We're both painters and both designers as well."

The Whistler Medals Plaza work has taken Downs to Switzerland, Chicago and Calgary, Alberta, as well as to Vancouver, to oversee work on its components.

Downs plans to go to the rehearsal of the Olympics opening ceremony on Thursday, but he will be in Whistler for its rehearsal as the Olympics open Friday. He'll stay through Saturday, to make sure Whistler's opening medals ceremony and the All-American Rejects concert goes as planned, then he will head home.

His next project: the expected Feb. 25 birth of his baby.

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