After the Circus

By Max Fawcett | March 6, 2010

If you listened closely enough on Monday, you could hear Vancouver exhale. After having spent 17 days holding in its belly, the city returned to its approximation of  normal as  30,000 visiting tourists and athletes stampeded towards the exits and games officials started knocking down the makeshift venues that had littered the city’s waterfront. It’s still early, but right now it’s difficult to call the Winter Olympics anything other than a success.

That is something of a surprise given the sense of foreboding that settled over the city in the weeks before they began. There were no unusually disruptive protests, no major traffic headaches, and no major service-related complaints from either residents or visitors during the games. Even those elements less naturally inclined to co-operate ended up playing along, from the usually suicide-inducing February weather to the international terrorist organizations whose bad intentions we spent nearly a billion dollars preparing for.

Vancouver even managed to shed its no-fun reputation during the games, as the combination of good weather – there was a five day stretch of sunny and warm weather mid-games, something nearly as rare as a tornado in downtown Toronto – the hundreds of cultural events that made up the cultural Olympiad, and enough booze to fill False Creek twice over, gave Vancouver the kind of vitality that’s usually reserved for great cities. Even Sunday’s execrable closing ceremony that featured a giant inflatable beaver and the “music” of Nickelback and Avril Lavigne, choices that made it feel more like the Juno Awards circa 2002, didn’t dampen the mood.

Was the 2010 Winter Olympics the biggest party in Vancouver’s history? Absolutely. Was it the “once-in-a-lifetime” marketing opportunity, both for the city and the province, that VANOC CEO John Furlong and Premier Gordon Campbell had been promising it would be? Probably. If nothing else, they will be a boon to local real estate developers, as the announcement that seven luxury condos worth a combined $47.9 million had been sold during the Games to international buyers indicates. But will the Winter Olympics and the $6 billion that the city, the province, and the federal government poured into its facilitation be a good investment for the people who actually live here? That, I think, remains to be seen.

Certainly, the Winter Olympics leave behind improved local infrastructure. The new Canada Line, an extension of the existing rapid transit line connecting the airport to the downtown core, is a legacy project, and it’s a fine one for local commuters. The new Richmond speed skating oval, a building that has won a number of architectural awards for its innovative use of salvaged beetle-kill wood and energy efficient measures, is a great addition to the local sporting infrastructure. Whistler received its own state-of-the-art sliding centre as a result of the Games, a track on which lugers, bobsledders, and skeleton riders (skeletors?) can refine their skills. Even the road to Whistler has been widened as a result of the Olympics, allowing local skiers, snowboarders, and overpriced martini-enthusiasts to travel the once treacherous two-lane highway without having to prepare their last will and testament beforehand.

The Games also left improvements that Vancouverites of a more urban orientation can enjoy. The new convention centre from which most media outlets did their broadcasting during the Olympics makes Canada Place, the convention centre built in conjunction with the last major event in Vancouver, Expo ’86, look positively Soviet by comparison. The reclamation and redevelopment of False Creek’s southeast and northeast shores, the last pieces of unused land in the downtown Vancouver, area, was sped up significantly by the arrival of the Olympics.

The athlete’s village, which sits on former industrial land on the creek’s southeast shore, is a major addition to Vancouver’s urban landscape. It was recently certified as LEED platinum, one of only two communities in North America to receive that designation, for its innovative green building and design features, and is filled out with a new community centre, a beautifully restored building that will house a local brew pub, and a geothermal energy utility that takes waste heat from the sewer system and converts it into energy. Its units will be put up for sale to the public after the Paralympic Games leave town at the end of March.

These assets, though, each come with their own caveats and qualifications. The speed skating oval won’t be used to inspire and train the next Cindy Klassen or Denny Morrison, or even to host local meets. Instead, it will be converted into a community centre, a glorified feedlot for middle-aged exercise junkies, with basketball courts replacing the sheet of ice. The Whistler Sliding Centre, a track cooled with environmentally poisonous ammonia whose sole recreational function is propelling sledders through a series of dangerous twists and turns at speeds of over 100 km/h, isn’t much of a legacy for the community of Whistler, given that the only people who will use it are professional suicidal maniacs and the odd amateur (suicidal) athlete.

The new and improved Highway 99 created plenty of collateral damage, most notably in the sensitive Eagleridge Bluffs area near Horseshoe Bay, a three kilometres stretch of land that was home to the blue-listed red-legged frog, mature stands of Douglas Fir trees, and flanked the sensitive Larsen creek wetlands. Despite concerns articulated by local environmentalists and aboriginal activists and a brief protest in 2006 that involved the creation of a barricade and the participation of high-profile activists like Betty Krawczyk and Ned Jacobs, who spoke on behalf of his late mother Jane Jacobs, the area was bulldozed and the highway built as planned.

The decision to spend millions of dollars on a road rather than a form of rapid transit connecting Whistler and Vancouver frustrated green activists, transit junkies, and even some Whistler residents. “It’s hard to believe that the millions of dollars spent on the highway couldn’t have been used for more sustainable transportation options,” said Cheeying Ho, the executive director of the Whistler Centre for Sustainability. “From a sustainability perspective, it would have been way better to put a more lasting rail option that could have been used post-games.”

Even the glittering new convention centre, one that was built at a cost of $886 million despite the presence of a barely twenty year-old convention centre right next door, is a poor fit for the city and its needs. Already, there’s talk that the two convention centres will simply end up competing for the same clientele, creating two relatively empty convention centres rather than one full one. Instead of building Vancouver’s convention capacity, as Premier Gordon Campbell and his Liberal government promised it would, it is instead a monument to the excess capacity that the Olympics have built into this relatively small city. Fittingly, it is also the site of the Olympic Cauldron, an installation that holds the Olympic flame and was intended as a tourist attraction but instead became an image that was emblematic of VANOC’s intrusive and insensitive policies after they decided to restrict public access to it using a crude chain-link fence.

In essence, Vancouver and the province of British Columbia will be paying somewhere in excess of $6 billion for a seventeen day party, a few white elephants, and a new subway line that was already going to be built (the Canada Line has been on the drawing table of local transit planners, in some form or another, for more than twenty-five years. Meanwhile, even the most optimistic projections of games-related economic activity barely exceeds $1 billion, a paltry return on a massive investment of public money.

More important than that 6-1 cost/benefit deficit is the fact that the Olympics represent a huge missed opportunity for the city and the province. The Games could have been used as a springboard from which to launch the city into a different orbit, away from the Vancouver Board of Trade’s vision of the city as a “world-class” tourism based economy and towards a more meaningful and sophisticated self-identification. Vancouver could have used the Olympics as an incitement to growth, an opportunity for some long-overdue maturation. Instead, it decided to buy a new dress, put on a new shade of lip gloss, and throw a big, boisterous party.

The Games seemed to only reaffirm the city’s image as the west coast’s answer to Dubai, a rainy emirate with more democracy and fewer human rights abuses but the same gutless fealty to global capital. But for those who still hold out hope that Vancouver might one day turn into a real city, or at the very least stop its transformation into a recreation park for the international glitterati, there is hope. While Premier Gordon Campbell spent the games braying like a nationalist jackass and Prime Minister Stephen Harper did what he could to convince voters that he is, in fact, a human being, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was working behind the scenes and away from the cameras trying to create a real Olympic legacy for the city. As part of his “Green Capital” initiative that seeks to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world by 2020, Robertson invited leaders in green business from around the world to enjoy the Olympics, offering them accommodation, venue tickets, and, most importantly, his ear.

The contrast between Robertson’s quiet endeavours and the nearly hysterical shrieking of those looking to polish Vancouver’s image as a tourist attraction is both striking and instructive. While people like Premier Campbell talked up the city’s potential as a tourist hub, a site of recreation and leisure for the international jet-setters whose company he clearly prefers to that of his own constituents, Mayor Robertson was trying to create some meaningful jobs in a city that is desperately short on them. Instead of trying to create more minimum-wage jobs at local restaurants, hotels, and valet parking companies, Robertson was busy trying to encourage the development of an industrial base in a city that could use one. If he succeeds in encouraging even a few of the businesses to relocate to Vancouver, the resulting increase in industrial and commercial activity could one day be regarded as the real Olympic legacy, one far more meaningful than a new luge track or a superfluous convention centre. More importantly, Robertson’s green Games legacy might actually catapult Vancouver into the class of globally important cities it so desperately wants to be.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to head on over to You Shall Know My Veracity Max Fawcett’s non-blog, for other critical takes on issues that matter.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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