From the Desk of Dennis Carr, Sustainable Development Editor

Olympic legacy

Poverty and debt and hangovers or
Diversity and inclusion and joy?

One Games, two views

By Chris Shaw and Geoff Meggs
TheTyee.ca

Chris Shaw: The party's over and we're left with big bills, some ruined nature and no accountability from politicians
Geoff Meggs: The story was one of athletes striving, people communing, and the power of good will

 

For any wild party there comes the morning after. As you stagger to the kitchen for a glass of water, you kick aside discarded cans and bottles then rummage around trying to find a half clean glass that doesn't have some sort of weird residue floating inside.

The sink overflows with greasy unwashed dishes. The dog got into the pizza boxes and left shredded bits of cardboard scattered hither and yon. Some fool — turns out later that it was you — left the back door open and now the cat is gone. Some other fool put the lawn furniture into the fish pond for reasons that must have seemed hysterically funny at midnight.

As you try to piece together the events of the previous night, the phone goes off and a very pissy ex wonders when precisely you are coming over to get the kids, given that you are two hours late already. If you didn't feel so nauseous you'd get right on it, except for the small detail that your wallet seems to be missing. Also, for that matter, is your car.

Woohoo, wasn't that a party!

Yes, indeed, just like the five ring circus party that left town a few weeks ago. Blessed by mild sunny days, families came downtown from the 'burbs to take in the spectacle. There was no question that a lot of people had a great time and felt that Vancouver had finally lost its reputation as a "no fun" city. The music was great, the energy levels high.

At night, however, the scene began to resemble a Granville Street Saturday night gone totally manic as the party animals took over. "Go Canada, go" slurred from the mouths of drunks wearing Canadian flags like capes as they staggered from bar to bar between the celebratory zones. In the midst of the revelry, were most of the partiers paying attention to the athletes or the lofty goals of Olympism? Nope. It was, plain and simple, pretty much about being in the party zone. A few drinks under your belt and you could easily forget that the party wasn't actually free, and that you'd be paying for it eventually... and for a long time. Who cares, right? Just remember the "spirit of 2010" and party on! Woohoo!

Driving down Cambie past City Hall the other day, I noticed that the IOC and Paralympic flags had vanished, replaced by the flags of B.C and the city. Like many, I'd pretty much forgotten that Vancouver even had a flag. Finally, after eight years, we have our city back - — hence an appropriate time to ask if Vancouver's trip to the Olympic wild side was worth it.

So what did we get and what did it all cost?

Roads and centres for a wealthy few

Without the rose coloured glasses of the pre-Games period on or the beer goggles of the Games themselves, here is what the final Olympic tally looks like:

Poverty and homelessness are distinctly worse since 2003, and are not about to get better anytime soon given three levels of carefully cultivated government indifference. Try, for example, selling the spirit of 2010 to those still living in the rain. Eagleridge is still destroyed as is much of the Callaghan, but these are far from the celebratory zones so who cares, right? Eight billon dollars were spent, but "we" needed a new convention centre for the Board of Trade and an upgraded Sea to Sky highway for the condo market in Whistler.

The Canada Line was also needed according to the official mantra, but how does that help those jammed on to the main east-west route busses?

A billion spent on so-called "security" preparations that arguably degraded the most fundamental security of all — our civil rights. There's also a billion more that city taxpayers are on the hook for with the Athletes' Village, unless the city can sell all of the units at a profit. But if it does, there goes the promise of social housing.

Lastly, the city, province, and federal governments continue to hide the true costs. Accountability has never been a pillar of the Olympics, but the 2010 Games made an utter mockery of any attempt to accommodate the smallest measure of the same.

Where's the true spirit?

What did we get in return for these investments? We got some infrastructure that some of us will use, some of the time. A sustained increase in tourism? Not likely, according to the history of past Olympic cities. More high-end real estate for rich tourists? Maybe, according to condo king Bob Rennie. Economic boom times? Not according to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers economic impact report or an earlier Rand Corporation study.

So what's left as the legacy of 2010? What kind of spirit did we actually inherit? Was it the spirit of true community building as advocated by Reverend Ric Mathews of the Downtown Eastside's First United Church when he called for a "share the gold" campaign to harness the energy and resources of the Olympics to combat homelessness? Not likely, as that notion seems to have fallen on the deaf ears of officialdom. Was there any sort of prolonged spirit that would build stronger, more economically and ecologically sustainable communities in our city? Alas, also not.

What's left is only the sizzle part of the spirit, not the steak. We get to keep the feel-good memories of camaraderie and the faux patriotism of the party zone instead of the actuality of a mature society addressing the needs of its most vulnerable. Our memories of the happy crowds in the streets when Canada took hockey gold are now supposed to wash away any lingering concerns about the real state of the city and province — and of the mess we continue to leave for our children to clean up.

Like any party, the Olympic circus came with real world consequences. Had we solved our problems before partying, we'd have something all of us could be proud of. Instead, our angst about being "world class" swept away all concerns and made us the perfect marks for the grifters who drove the 2010 Olympic dream.

What is the final spirit of 2010? Is it about a world class city and patriotic renewal? Nope, it's just provincial and juvenile. Woohoo.
The Paralympic torch is out, Alexandre Bilodeau has moved on to new races, John Furlong has placed flowers on Nodar Kumaritashvili's grave and front-end loaders are erasing all signs of Livecity Yaletown.

So what remains of the Olympic experience?

For many, what will endure is the memory of a brief month-long period when the unlikely became commonplace, average people did extraordinary things, co-operation proved the foundation for successful competition, many homeless people found shelter and total strangers talked like old friends on the Skytrain.

In short, it was much like a world many of us would like to live in full-time.

What a contrast to pre-Games Doomsday scenarios that predicted hapless commuters, locked in traffic chaos, deafened by the thumping of the Integrated Security Unit's surveillance helicopters.

It all started to turn around — as it always does, according to Games veterans — with the torch relay.

By the time Ken Lyotier, the former binner who runs United We Can, carried the torch into Livecity Yaletown, the entire country was on fire.

"You can't believe what a high it is," he told friends, "to run through tens of thousands of people who are all happy!"

Why should that be such a rare occurrence?

The relay turned the ultimate insider event upside down. The people became the focus.

Tragedy and triumph

The Olympic story switched away from obsessions with security, gold medal hockey tickets, cost overruns and the movements of IOC limousines.

Suddenly we were riveted by the death of a 21-year-old Georgian luger; the story of Bilodeau, a Canadian gold medal-winner whose hero was a brother with cerebral palsy; Joannie Rochette's triumph over tragedy — and eventually, shockingly, the upset victory of the Japanese men's sledge hockey team.

Above all, the Games became the story of people — thronging the streets, jamming in front of any screen, and celebrating the exhilarating efforts of athletes from all around the world who competed simply for the sheer joy of it.

It was a rare case in which the people finally took the lead and the leaders came behind, waving their Olympic mittens.

In retrospect, it was inevitable. The Olympic Games are, in the end, a sporting event.

Despite the massive entourage of corporate sponsors, ambush marketers and global broadcasters, the athletes make it real. It's their heart and spirit, and their commitment to the beauty and community of sport, that puts all the other controversies into perspective.

Women made a statement

It was the heartfelt appeal to the IOC by gold medal skater Catriona Le May Doan that gave a decisive lift to Vancouver's bid in Prague in 2003, when we won a cliffhanger IOC vote by 56-53 with three providential abstentions.

(What other contest of such magnitude is settled by a secret vote of about 120 people as random and diverse as Finnish NHL great Saku Koivu and Prince William of Orange?)

Le May Doan told the IOC how Vancouver's Games could provide a major boost to sport in Canada. To many in the room, her passion closed the deal. She wasn't alone. Countless Canadian athletes — notably many women — were critical to our success. Runner Charmaine Crooks, an IOC member, and swimmer Marion Lay, the first chair of the bid committee, come to mind.

They helped keep the Vancouver bid's focus on inclusion, sustainability and the athletes, most of whom will train, compete and retire with nothing more than the satisfaction of playing at the global level. So it was fitting that Canada's women athletes turned in such a powerful performance in Games at which the IOC prohibited women's ski-jumping.

It was not the only example of the elite, autocratic and corporate-oriented IOC paradoxically producing its polar opposite.

A sense of the possible

What could provide a sharper contrast with the IOC dignitaries, ensconced high above the opening ceremonies in their gilded box, than the 25,000 unpaid, blue-coated volunteers, safely ushering hundreds of thousands of fans to and from events?

Without them John Furlong would have been helpless.

Like the athletes, they made their contribution for the sheer pleasure of it, not with any expectation they would ever become rich or famous.

And is it possible that the brutal, win-lose world of reality television — "you're fired!" — could ever be replaced with equally real tales of heroes like Brian McKeever?

The legally-blind cross country skier, devastated to be cut from the Olympic relay team, went on to win three gold medals in the Paralympics, guided by his brother Robin.

Like so much that happened during the Games, their achievement illuminates what is possible in a world focused on co-operation, inclusion and the celebration of diversity. Ultimately, that may be the Games' greatest legacy: a sense of the possible.

Imagine a world in which the achievements of everyday people are celebrated, most of us take the bus, First Nations are full partners, women take the lead, civil rights are upheld and mobs of happy people throng the streets!

Don't call me crazy. I've seen it with my own eyes.

29 March 2010 — Return to cover.
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