The Winter Olympics: a debrief via a local Vancouverite.

Via on Mar 3, 2010

lululemon athletica + Budweiser beer, Green buildings + bulldozed eagle sanctuary, newfound community + corporate heroism.

It was the last day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, when the sun re-appeared after some days of clouds and rain, casting its timely glow on the dramatic, storybook finish to the Winter Games, a nail-biting, gold medal hockey battle that Canada stole from the US in a sudden death 3-2 finish.

Olympic Torch, Vancouver
Olympic Torch, Vancouver

While driving out to catch a ferry to Vancouver Island on Sunday evening, I noticed cherry blossoms and magnolias dotting the sidewalks and the Olympic Torch burned high against the North Shore mountains. So much for Snowmageddon and theensuing American cynicism about climate change?

Much has been written about Vancouver’s beauty in the past few weeks and months and years leading up to this event…as residents we were told repeatedly that the eyes of the world would be looking at us and that we should be proud of being the host city.

Thus far, the world has looked upon us mostly approvingly, observing the city’s geography nestled amidst mountains and ocean, singing praises about Vancouver’s cutting edge eco-density initiatives, speaking of these being the “greenest” games and calling the volunteers, who stood for hours at a time amidst cold rain, cheery.

Signs of Spring @ the Winter Olympics, Kits Beach, Vancouver
Signs of Spring @ the Winter Olympics, Kits Beach, Vancouver

What the world media doesn’t speak of much is the other side of the games, the fact that though 64% of Vancouver residents voted to host the games, the years leading up to the event had brought with it many challenges and opponents.  From noting how the city’s frenetic spate of activity to create public transit to transport visitors to game venues also managed to bankrupt small mom and pop businesses along its trajectory, to the continual gentrification of the Down Town East Side a.k.a. Vancouver’s poorest postal code, which has displaced more homeless people.

Sticker on a building in Vancouver's DTES (down town east side)
Sticker on a building in Vancouver's DTES (down town east side)

I watched the new Olympic Village rise along the banks of eastern False Creek, a former industrial dead-land, which will now be turned into profitable market-oriented housing.  The original plan for these buildings was that the village, with its gold LEED certified buildings, emblematic of the “green games” was supposed to include mixed income housing – yet the fate of these homes is now uncertain – and in a swoop that silenced many environmental activists, Vancouverites watched a new, “improved” $400 million highway built between Vancouver and Whistler that bulldozed through the Eagle Ridge bluffs, an area cherished as both as old growth forest and eagle habitat. I drove that highway a few nights ago, and it was empty save for a few buses and VANOC cars.

Yes, you might say, these games were more contentious than was let on.   Yet they managed to impact all of us here in Vancouver from the Olympic Fans to the skeptics.  My hope was to watch the goings-on with a critical, yet open eye.

Some observations from the past few weeks:

Sports create community:
Vancouver is not known to be a gregarious city, I remember experiencing the general reticence of the west coast Canadian when I moved here eight years ago.  Yet, having something communal to talk about opens people up.  It’s like smoking for the socially awkward, all of a sudden you know that you can connect with other people about the games and so you do, in lines, waiting to get into a stadium or a venue, or just at a restaurant or bar…all of a sudden you realize that you’re high-fiving a perfect stranger or beaming happily at a random guy you would have never even acknowledged.  I consider this a plus—and it made for very engaging rides on the train downtown and even just walking on the streets of the city.

People love standing in lines for anything free: from hot chocolate, to free coca cola, to lobster at the Newfoundland House, or raclette at the Swiss House, people will stand in interminable lines patiently, in the sunshine (understandable), and in the rain (not yet understandable to this writer) for hours and hours (and longer if necessary).  The clincher: the zip line around downtown Vancouver’s popular Robson Square that lasted about 30 seconds, yet the line up to ride it was 7 hours long. A local TV station, CTV even reported that “waiting in line is part of the Olympic experience.”

Standing in yet another line, bearing flag colours
Standing in yet another line, bearing flag colours