Olympic Celebration or Olympic Cynicism?

I suppose this post is long over due, since most people who know me also know that I’m an Olympics junkie.  I am that person who will sit glued to the tv as much as I can to watch the Olympics, despite work.  I even took my thesis home for the duration of Torino Olympics in order to watch, and even narrated the opening ceremonies to my housemates who really could have cared less.  So I suppose being in the city, walking by some of the events, it was only a matter of time before I would share my thoughts about the Vancouver Olympics.  And they are many.

The most interesting things I’ve seen lately have been the ways you notice the Olympics that have nothing to do with what the public and tourists will notice.  Buildings have once again been spray-washed to gleaming perfection (even in the rain as Vancouver residents seem to love to do).  Turquoise volunteer coats are flooding the city.  Cruise ships that house volunteers are docked at the freight shipping yard because Olympic security has closed off the Canada Place Cruise Ship terminal.  Two Saturdays ago, I walked down to see the International Broadcast Centre and stopped into the nearby food court only to be shocked that it was completely full of police from all areas of the country: Vancouver police, Victoria Police, RCMP, etc.  I don’t think there was a safer place for me to be.  Robson Square has been changed into a multimedia light show, and the light show over False creek is now running full tilt every night.  Tourists with expensive cameras are everywhere.  And random buildings have been converted into international houses; like the Vancouver International Film Festival building is currently the Slovak House, and a tent structure has been erected outside of Ceili’s which is the Irish House.  I am constantly amazed at how much has gone into planning these events.

The problem is, since my move here two and a half years ago, the Vancouver cynicism has been sucking out of me the joy I once felt for the “magic” of the Olympics.  Being in the host city, you see glimpses into just how much of a show this truly is, just how many people are involved, and just how much money is spent in various ways.  I listen to the cynics every day.  People who on a daily basis are inconvenienced by the Olympics, like the businesses who can’t get customers because fences have been put up blocking traffic right outside their doors.  Or, people like my friend who drives to Squamish for work on a daily basis on the Sea to Sky Highway.  She is essentially banned from travel (and work) on the main route to the Whistler venues; she is forced to take 2 weeks off in February, and another 2 weeks off in March for the Paralympics.  Or my church friend, whose bus routes for all her cleaning jobs are completely changed for the 6 weeks surrounding both sets of games.  I think the biggest cynics remain those who aren’t directly affected by the Olympics.  Instead, they are the people who have grown up with the city, who look around and simply say: lets watch and see how bad a failure this is going to be, then we can say ‘I told you so.’

Artists and celebrities I tend to respect have also been publicly cynical about the events.  Artists like Matt Good have been quick to point out the follies of the Olympics in their blogs.  Newspapers like The Tyee are ensuring that dissident voices are heard, and even illustrating what the protesters stand for.  I’ve even read articles that point out the benefits the money could have spent in the rest of the province, either in health care, education, or the fact that the majority of schools in Vancouver still need to be seismically upgraded.  I’m afraid that major disasters will even be placed into the background during this expensive show.

Beyond the discourse of so many people, I have my own impressions of what the Olympics are doing to this city, and some of it is pretty disappointing.  A number of Vancouver icons have been relabeled for the Olympics by Vanoc.  I don’t just mean that GM Place is going to be called Canada Hockey Place (here’s hoping the taxi drivers remember this when shuffling tourists around).  I mean that the city’s iconography now has the Vanoc Brand.  There’s a certain expectation that the large Olympic sponsors will have a presence within the city.  The Royal Bank has a massive poster of an arial skier down its 32 floors.  Samsung has borrowed the glass of the TD Bank tower for its multi-story poster, showing a large phone, with Vancouver’s mascots less than one third the size of that phone.  Its a poster that you can see clearly driving across the Granville Bridge.  These kinds of blatant corporate sponsorship I can understand in a way, simply because its expected and goes with the territory of putting on a multi-national event.

On the other hand, Vanoc has appropriated smaller city iconography it never invested in.  There is a large mural on 2 sections of a building between Granville and Seymour as you cross the city bridge feature a school of orca.  Its been there for 20 plus years, and as I crossed the bridge a few days ago, I noticed that over the sun, the Vancouver Inukshuk logo (which by the way is a northern native icon not a west coast one) was painted overtop of the mural.  Vanoc had nothing to do with the mural in its origins, why would it do something like this to claim it now?  Another special icon that I loved, and that formed the original post to this blog has been whitewashed to “clean up the city” for the Olympics.  On Beatty street the murals along the parkade are gone, including this one.  Originally a fundraiser for a Steve Nash foundation, I don’t see the point in erasing these murals from the public since I find that quite beautiful.

Other issues have been frequently pointed out to me.  The Vancouver Olympics are supposed to be the Green Olympics, which is a tad ironic given the lack of snow currently on Cypress Mountain (they are actually going to have to ship snow in).  David Suzuki has given the sustainable effort a bronze medal citing problems like improving conditions for car use to Whistler instead of creating a direct train.  I know a good chunk of the buildings are designed to not only be sustainable, but also to be reused in the community.  The Chevrolet Volt (an all electrical car) is being used as a sustainable model for driving during the Olympics.  But unfortunately, sustainability for events like this isn’t only found in the buildings.  I know someone who for a time worked for Vanoc helping to organize transportation for dignitaries.  Politics is never a sweet issue, and most countries are asking for 1 vehicle per dignitary, and won’t carpool with members from their own country on the busy Sea to Sky highway.  The International broadcast centre is supposed to be designed to be completely recycled at the end of its use, but countries are competitive and want to outdo each other with their broadcast facilities (certain network presidents even want their own private toilets).  Not only that, but there are events planned in the convention centre where the broadcasters are housed scheduled for 2 weeks after the close of the ceremonies.  Demolition in such a short time frame often leads to shortcuts in recycling materials.  On top of that, my Olympics tickets were shipped in a massively oversized Purolator envelope with high gloss books and receipts that cannot be recycled.  I will keep my tickets, but honestly, why wouldn’t I recycle my receipt?

And the worst part, is these are the parts of the Olympics that I know enough about.  If you ask about Native rights, you will get a slew of responses.  If you talk to people in the arts community, they will show you just how little funding the cultural Olympiad has received for the hoops they had to jump through to get it.  As you can imagine, this city’s overall cynicism can be a bit of a downer, despite CTV’s wonderfully upbeat advertisements.  At times, I truly do find it hard to believe.

But I am trying to remember my first love.  As the opening ceremonies arrive in a few short days, I have been reminded of the reasons I always loved the Olympic events.  First, the stories of the athletes who have struggled to get to the point where they can represent their countries.  These are people who have followed their dreams and worked harder than most people ever do to get there to the point where they can compete in one of the biggest international competitions in the world.  Then there are the small things that unite the athletes.  Every Olympiad North and South Korea walk into the opening ceremonies  united together.  These are people who don’t normally get to spend time together, adversaries not only in competition but also in life who are united for a few hours every few years.  I realize the cynics will ask “what does it change?”  But for those athletes who get to connect together for a short period of time, it potentially changes everything, because it can change their hearts.  It reminds me that in Canada, Liberal or Conservative, NDP or Green, we can all at least support our nations athletes united together.  I remember that quite frankly, I would much rather have people compete in corporate-sponsored events than to commit to wars.

I remember the wonderful stories where anything can happen in the Olympics, like in Torino, when an Australian speed skater came from fourth to a gold medal win because the front 3 contenders all collided as one into the boards.  Or when the Swedish women’s hockey team met with Canada in the finals, proving that women’s hockey was more than just for a US or Canadian team.  Or how honored athletes are when they get to carry their national flag into the stadium for the opening or closing ceremonies.  Or how the Jamaican bobsled team managed to complete their run despite a horrifying accident (thank you John Candy).  There are so many stories, and I like to enjoy collecting them.  They speak volumes of the human spirit.  They are today’s heros and their determination and perseverance are qualities I respect and admire.

So as the Olympics arrive, and put Vancouver and Canada back on centre stage, I am going to try to remember my first love for the magic of the Olympics.  I am going to support the Canadian athletes, and hope that they do their absolute best in every competition, and make us proud and united as a nation.  I may even buy a pair of red wool mittens with a white maple leaf and wear them to the only event I am currently attending: Germany vs. Finland men’s hockey (only because I couldn’t get tickets to see Canada play).

Go Canada Go!

One thought on “Olympic Celebration or Olympic Cynicism?

  1. Reblogged this on Write. Design. Create. and commented:

    With all the comments floating around about the Olympics, including the tweets criticizing the Canadian athletes for the way they handled Putin’s visit to Canada house, I thought I’d bring back this post I wrote in early 2010, as I watched the Olympic circus arrive in Vancouver. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but for now, please have a read, and let me know what you think.

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