The circus has finally left town for good: Just over nine months ago, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made good its escape from occupied Vancouver with billions of dollars in profit stuffed into its jeans; the Paralympics, without the loot, took off a few days after the Ides of March. A good con man always knows when to di di mao out of town and that time is always before the local rubes realize just how bogus the Nigerian Bank stock certificates actually are.
For both departures, marching athletes, flags and fireworks, jostling crowds, and celebrities, marked the end of a period spanning almost eight years. Many locals celebrated; many others simply heaved a sigh of relief that it was all over and they could have their lives back.
For many of us in the latter category, the eight years combined periods of apathy and activism. Vancouver’s initial Bid for the 2010 Games was met with a burst of local opposition followed by opponents descending into the doldrums after Vancouver “won” the Olympics in July 2003. The resistance to the Olympics had a resurgence after 2005 as promise after Olympic promise was jettisoned by the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (VANOC) and by the various levels of government. Where were the solutions for the poor in the Downtown Eastside and overall homelessness in the city? Forget it. The “greenest Games” ever? Hardly. What about fiscal accountability and official transparency? Don’t make us laugh.
Many became apathetic when faced with three levels of government actively whoring for the Games and a virtual corporate media tidal wave of pro-Olympics hype. Indeed, the latter stood constantly on guard to do anything and everything to keep from finding the smallest fault with anything related to the Olympics. And, of course, there were the cult-like boosters of the Games, determined to prove that the “right to party” was paramount even above silly things like the right to shelter or free speech.
So what were the so-called “legacies” of the 2010 Winter Games? Let’s divide the potential legacies into three main categories, social, economic, and environmental, and see how the pendulum swings on each of these.
Poverty and Social Issues: What got better about the situation? Nothing. Has homelessness gotten worse? For sure it has. Can we place the blame squarely on the Olympics? No. Was it a related factor due to cash going to Olympic projects versus other things such as social housing? In principle, yes. In reality, likely not, since public sentiment for diverting tax dollars to housing the homeless still does not seem to have gained any significant traction with the taxpaying public. This is tragic and shortsighted from a number of perspectives, but seems to be the way it is and is likely to remain.
Native Issues: Better or worse? It completely depends on who you talk to. Native culture was highlighted according to some, exploited according to others. Will anything get better for BC’s or Canada’s Native population due to the Games? With treaty processes largely stalled in BC and with the new budget cuts across a number of sectors at the provincial and federal levels, it’s hard to see how. The limited component in the Olympic Closing Ceremonies suggests that Native involvement had served its VANOC public relations purpose and was thus easily forgotten. This is going to be hard for any but the most entrepreneurial of Native “leaders” to accept, but they just got sold another load of junk jewellery and an awful lot of them now know it, even if they won’t admit it publicly.
Civil Liberties: The City of Vancouver and the province opened up some really nasty precedents with their Olympics-related bylaws and bills. The City of Vancouver neatly forgot the fundamentals of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, happily signing away rights of residents to the IOC and putting in their place commercial “rights” to marketing. It took a lawsuit to get them to scroll back on this outright assault on civil liberties. The final so-called Signage Bylaw was better than the original, but still problematic from a rights perspective.
Another legislative nasty, the Assistance to Shelter Act, known more accurately in activist circles as the “kidnapping act,” allowed police to take the homeless to shelters against their will during periods of inclement weather. Given that Vancouver is notorious for inclement weather, it is easy to see how this legislation could be the gift that keeps on giving for those intent on using it to strip away the civil rights of the homeless or other “undesirables.”
Scrutiny by the BC Civil Liberties Association and lawsuits by organizations and individuals no doubt kept the wording and enforcement of these laws less odious than they might have been.
Security: The overall problem with the security costs, apart from the utter fraud with the initial numbers, put out there by Jack Poole and the rest of the grifters on the original Olympic Bid Corp—and now admitted by the government—was this: if you give cops a bottomless budget and tell them to be afraid of absolutely everything, they will happily comply.
The question never asked was this: if you need to be afraid of everything, doesn’t this raise questions about the sanity of the overall project itself? For three levels of government, the answer seemed to be no.
It was also notable that security staffing shrank to 1,600 for the Paralympics, down from 16,000 during the Olympics. How did this happen? Did the potential of foreign threats change? No. All that changed was the threat of domestic protests which, for the Paralympic games, were nil. In other words, the costs really were all due to fear of legitimate protests.
Accountability: Even the most booster-ish of Games supporters can’t really claim that there has been anything like full accountability, at least not without neutral observers questioning their sanity. Not only was VANOC (cleverly Access-to-Information-proof by design) pretty opaque, but ready access to information didn’t occur with any level of government either. All levels of government stonewalled like berserkers, hid information (even trivial stuff), lied, dissembled, and then lied some more.
Democracy: The vote in 2003 in Vancouver was a plebiscite (an opinion poll), not a legally binding referendum. It involved twelve percent of BC’s population; that is, Vancouverites only. The other eighty-eight percent of British Columbians are paying the bills too, in case anyone forgets.
Costs: Overall, the costs (admitted and not) were absurdly higher than VANOC or any level of government was ready to admit in 2002/03 or, for that matter, even now. The final number will come in north of eight billion dollars. How much farther north we may never know due to a rather stunning lack of accountability, hidden funding, massive levels of indirect funding, etc.
Financial Benefits: Neither macro- nor micro-economics support the notion that the Games were a fiscal success for BC. The recent Price Waterhouse Coopers impact study pretty much sums it up: all levels of government spent the above eight plus billion dollars of hard earned taxpayer money to make one billion dollars. Real businesses would go bankrupt pretty damned fast this way. But then, VANOC is not a real business. It is, instead, a taxpayer subsidized boondoggle, or what a colleague calls part of a scheme for “privatized profit, socialized debt.” All we can honestly say is that the dollars put into the Games did not go into other things that might have had greater economic and social impacts.
At the micro-economic level, did businesses do well? Downtown Vancouver, yes; elsewhere, almost certainly not. Doubts? Ask some local merchants outside of Vancouver’s downtown core.
Infrastructure and Megaproject Legacies: First, there was the new convention centre (yes, the Board of Trade and Concert Properties wanted this and it’s good for them, maybe, but not for sure given the nature of the convention centre business in North America). For the rest of us, it’s merely another major taxpayer subsidy of the private sector.
The Sea to Sky Highway upgrade: who benefited? Whistler and those living in the new condos along the route did for sure. Did anyone outside this zone who doesn’t drive the route? Not really. (If you doubt this, try selling this project to the nice folks in the rest of the province who aren’t having the best time financially right now.)
The RAV/Canada Line: maybe an overall benefit in the long term. But was it the most urgent mass transit option for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland: almost for sure not.
Athletes’ Village: What a fiscal trainwreck. City taxpayers will be footing the bill for this for years. Social housing advocates who had been promised some fraction of the city’s condos in the Village will scream betrayal. And they will be right since none of these condos has a hope in hell of winding up as real social housing. Taxpayers in Vancouver are now looking at a four percent property tax increase as City Hall faces a twenty million shortfall.
The “Greenest Games” ever? Consider: the Eagleridge fiasco, the Callaghan Valley development, 3.5 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted, habitat loss and much more. There were some attempts to minimize the environmental footprint, but overall the only thing green about these games was a public relations driven “greenwash.”
The “Intangible” Legacies
The Great Party: This was a largely self-selecting crowd, however, locked into a positive feedback loop by the media: “Large party downtown” media coverage helped generate large parties downtown. At the same time, about twelve percent of the population of Greater Vancouver fled abroad and took their cash with them; others simply stayed home.
Renewed Patriotism: Maybe. Or maybe it was something not quite Canadian in either history or spirit? Take for example the Torch Relay: a pure propaganda stunt of the Nazis in 1936 that has somehow come to be equated with Olympic ideals and peace. “Nazi, schmatzi,” say the critics. An unfair bit of rhetoric? But maybe the connection is a bit too close to home?
Once the IOC left town, most of the folks who had been hooting and hollering didn’t seem to care very much. The party animals went home. The media did some coverage, but nothing compared to when the IOC was running the show. The Paralympic opening ceremonies lost out to NASCAR and soccer on most of the city’s restaurant big screen tvs. Media comments that the “Paralympics had finally arrived” simply reflected their own previous lack of interest when it came to athletes with disabilities.
One silly aside: Paralympic organizers were said by the media to be disgruntled that the Paralympics weren’t protested like the Olympics, as if the failure to protest was somehow “dissing” the athletes. Another view: those opposed to the Games had already made their point when the IOC was here. Doing it again just to involve the Paralympics for PC reasons was a hell of a lot more work than those of us who have jobs and families needed or wanted to do.
The Olympic Resistance Network (ORN): A variety of social justice, political, and other individuals and groups began to discuss opposition to the Olympics back in 2007. In the space of about three years and with little money, they put together the largest anti-Olympic protest in Olympic history. It was not too shabby, all things considered. The overall goals were varied, but built around the broken promises about poverty and homelessness, Native rights, and the environmental impacts of the Games. ORN organized around the slogan, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”
The ORN slogan was fairly easy for VANOC and the provincial government to dismiss given the presence of the official “Four Host Nations” as Olympic partners. Basically, it came down to this: pro and anti-Olympic forces each had their own Native contingent, making it hard for any but the most doctrinaire to make any blanket claims about Native sentiments concerning the Games.
Was ORN effective in getting the word out? Initially, yes. Did this have much impact? Again, yes, in the sense that thousands of people hit the streets in protest, an Olympic first. Did these stop the Games? No, but the protests never intended to. Stopping the Games would have been an entirely different endeavour that would have been unlikely to succeed without some really serious street actions and disruptions. That was never in the cards, regardless of what the ISU’s (Integrated Security Unit) boss Bud Mercer believed.
Without going into an analysis of Black Bloc thought and tactics, did the February 13th march and disruptions help or hurt the movement? For many of those involved, the feeling is that the expression of so-called “diversity of tactics” was a success and empowering to those normally not so empowered. Various allies of ORN agreed. However, the wider public didn’t see it this way, at least based on the dubious wisdom of various polls. The ISU also saw it as a clear win for their side as the media depicted the outcome as “bad protesters v. restrained, professional, cops.”
The long-term impact on any future organizing in Vancouver around social justice issues between those who thought the tactics acceptable or those who thought them deplorable is still up in the air. Groups that worked together will likely continue to do so and any apparent rift may indeed be more transient than substantive. However, given the historical fracture in leftist organizations in Vancouver, the future could just as easily see the various groups go back to fighting their own lonely battles.
The Total Butcher’s Bill
The tally so far: social impacts, uniformly negative; missed opportunity costs, huge; financial bill, enormous—the total to still be counted (and never fully will be); civil liberties in Canada took an enormous hit; environment, what’s gone is gone. One media commentator noted before the Games began that the Olympics had divided the city. This was true. All the subsequent partying didn’t change the underlying division and the city remains divided in many ways: poor v. rich, the privileged v. those without, those seeking social justice v. those perfectly happy with the status quo.
The line in the sand for many of us is not that some people supported the fun of the Games while others didn’t. It’s larger than that: the Olympics are a microcosm of a much bigger problem. They are not only a symptom of unfettered capitalism, they are part of its pathological trajectory.
In a nutshell, the Olympic Games pose the interrelated questions: is it to be people before profit or the opposite, and will decisions be made by communities or by an elected—or worse—an unelected elite? In this sense at least, being for or against the Games reflected quite contrary, and I think almost certainly irreconcilable, world views. Which one will prevail? »From issue #57