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Vancouver Before the Olympics

Vancouver has always been an anxious sort of city. It’s the rain that does it, mostly, and in the old days before the fire, it was the cedars-and-Douglas firs-down-to-the-water.  During the fall, there is a constant and suicide-inducing gloom that you understand can last until June. Even in the middle of the heartbreakingly pleasant summers, the threat remains. You’re forever wondering when the bloody rain will return and spoil your fun.

During the 20 some years I lived in the city I was generally on suicide watch from mid-October through Christmas. But whenever I’ve been here in recent years, the weather has been splendid, and this time, it’s been sunny and just on the good side of cold, and I find myself forced to admit just how beautiful the place can be.

Yet it’s hard to get anyone to fully buy in. The Olympics are coming, and right now everyone knows that a day of good winter weather is likely going to cost them a rainy one during the Olympics, and how will the city handle those foreign athletes suiciding off the balconies of the Olympic Village and landing on the well-heeled foreign tourists? Will all those CSIS frogmen who’ll be swimming around False Creek be able to defend the Village against the explosives-clad Al Qaeda terrorists trying to bring their submarines into the bay?

There’s so many things that make you crazy when you want the eyes of the world to see you as World Class, and Vancouver has wanted to be seen as World Class since the mid-1980s and Expo 86, frequently beyond the point of, well, craziness. Never mind that world class cities like Hong Kong and Rio and Moscow and Los Angeles are filthy and dangerous and are loaded with social miseries nice people don’t even want to think about, and are mostly run on behalf of criminals and the money zombies of global capitalism. Never mind that Vancouver is too small to be World Class, or the most successful development in the city over the last 30 years—the south side of False Creek—was built for the residents of the city and not for the eyes of the world, or that the city’s most expensive public project—the Skytrain system and it’s too-small rolling stock—has been the laughing stock of urban transit experts all over the planet since it opened or that the province’s trees that haven’t already been cut down are dying. Serious contemplation of the human condition is the first thing to go when you’re pursuing World Class status.

What’s currently making the city crazy are the Olympic planners, who’ve been doing a credible imitation of Iran’s Islamist regime, forcing artists to sign contracts that remove their right to say anything critical about the games, trying to muffle the inevitable protest groups, and sucking up four times as much money on security as the original budget allowed for—$1 billion against $250 million.

The logic of special event megaprojects like this one is pretty much the logic of the cargo cults of World War II: build the facilities, and rich, magical people will shower you with wealth. It didn’t work very well for the native tribes of Borneo in the 1940s, and it hasn’t worked for the cities that host these boondoggles today, except to rejig their cultural apparatuses so that they serve the tourism industry instead the citizenry, and to supplant legitimate and authentic cultural activities with “celebration” festivals while permanently larding the bureaucracies with the intellectual bozos who specialize in organizing these mass schmooze sessions. With the single exception of Atlanta’s 1996 Olympics, which broke even, sort of, on the strength of its corporate sponsorships, special event megaprojects have, since they started being taken seriously, left behind a standard legacy of construction deficits, quickly derelict single-use facilities, people with hangovers that last for months and cities with economic and cultural hangovers that last decades. Maybe the best single example of this is Montreal, which still hasn’t recovered from the 1976 Olympics.

That successive events have run huge deficits and have otherwise run amok seems to deter no one, and Vancouver is no exception. It has bought into the bogus economic multipliers the global oligarchy of event boosters promise, believing that the city’s beauty will make it an exception to the rule, even though the economic multipliers for the Vancouver Olympics are actually more nebulous than most. One almost suspects that somewhere in City Hall is a report claiming that the rich Chinese visitors who come are all going to buy Mercedes and BMWs and then leave them behind for the poor when they go, and that this will make everything okay, even out the balance sheet and render the disaffected sweet.

But of course, that isn’t going to happen in the real world, and the series of measures put in place to hide the city’s 15,000 less-than-picturesque homeless people and their advocates isn’t working, either. And so there’s a palpable anxiety in the city as more and more people recognize that the way the city’s underclass is being treated in the runup to the games is going to come back and bite them, possibly before the events start. The half-assed plans to ship the least picturesque portion out of town and dump them in motels across the province for the duration of the Olympics is the worst sort of social cynicism, and the kind that deserves to be exposed for what it is. What’s next? Arrest the activists along with the poor and send them on the PGE, caged and gagged, in boxcars to Prince George?

I walked through the almost-completed Olympic Village the other night with my 30 year old son and my ex-wife, who lives a few hundred metres west in False Creek. Everything was fenced off—double fencing on the water side—and of course, empty. Both the streetscapes and the buildings are beautifully designed, and like any urban landscape that’s empty of people, it echoed Fascism’s most fervent wet dream—a world where everyone’s a supermodel superperson and a winner. All it needed for completion was a few hundred manikins dressed in Olympic swastikas.

I was, of course, going out of my way to point these small flaws out to them, and wondering aloud when B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, the Foster Brooks of Canadian politics, would show up drunk, and otherwise subjecting them to the cynical, crass, disrespectful analyses I use to protect myself from things that are beautiful and wrong.

The other revealing datum I picked up came while I was wandering around Vancouver’s beautiful Hudson’s Bay store, which had a predicably vast display of Olympic clothing and souvenirs. I’d assumed that much of it would be manufactured in Canada, since the object of the exercise, after all, is to convince outsiders that Vancouver has a world class economy that can produce things you can’t get anywhere else. Every single item I looked at—and believe me, I got interested enough to look at most of them—was manufactured in China or Vietnam.

I’ll spare you the lecture on the issue of selling souvenirs that are manufactured offshore except to point out that the message it sends is precisely the opposite of the one the local economy boosters intend, and that if Foster Brooks Premier Campbell really wanted some permanent economic multipliers to come out of the event he would have passed a law making it illegal to sell souvenirs of the Winter Olympics that aren’t manufactured in British Columbia. Instead, I’ll simply point out that a city—and province—inhabited by the best aboriginal artists on the planet that can’t be bothered to theme its paraphernalia and souvenirs around the rich iconography on tap locally deserves to be laughed at. Instead, they opted for designer colours no one will remember by late March, and produced fluffy, genderless mascots that refer to local specificities so vaguely that they’ll be lost (or tossed out) in the onslaught of similar merchandise by year’s end. Some legacy.

But hey, never mind that either. Maybe Canada will win the games! No? Maybe the hockey? Or if not, what about women’s hockey, if they can get past the American team, which has been whipping our team all winter? Where’s Elvis Stoyko when we need him? And how about that Joanie Rochette, who secretly reminds us of Tonya Harding (without the boyfriend and the baseball bat)? Why are so many of those skiers and speed-skaters going all Perdita Felicien on us just before the games? Who’s going to watch curling now that Jennifer Jones isn’t representing Canada? Will any of it be half as compelling as Battle of the Blades?

No, really, listen up. It’s not about winning. It’s about achieving personal bests, pursuing excellence, looking good, winning a few more medals, being World Class. All those things are going to happen, trust me. The planners have done their job, right? Calm down, Vancouver.

December 15, 2009 1500 words

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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