Hurdles cleared, Vancouver is ready for Olympics

Somehow, despite a global meltdown and a local thaw, the hosts

are ready. Vancouver is abuzz and the stage is set for a Winter

Olympics with dazzling settings and story lines.

Bring on Lindsey Vonn, skiing for a slew of gold medals, and the

unpredictably intriguing Bode Miller. Anticipate the showdown

between Asian figure skaters Kim Yu-na and Mao Asada. Root for, or

against, a star-studded Canadian men’s hockey team that knows

anything less than gold will crush the home-country fans whose

passion for a triumphant Olympics grows by the day.

Odds are high that it will rain at times in Vancouver during the

Feb. 12-28 run of the games. On Cypress Mountain, in West

Vancouver, crews are combatting unseasonably warm, wet weather by

trucking in snow to cover the freestyle skiing/snowboarding

venue.

But further north, at the vast ski resort of Whistler, snow

abounds on the Alpine courses, and the towering mountains there

combine with high-rise, harborside Vancouver to offer perhaps the

most stunning mix of scenery ever for a Winter Olympics.

Many of the venues have successfully hosted world-class events

over the past few years; the new bobsled/luge track at Whistler has

been described as perhaps the fastest in the world.

Canada’s Olympic athletes have had full access to the venues for

training, part of the Own the Podium initiative that has set the

bold goal for the host country to win the most medals at the games.

Germany and the United States, which finished 1-2 in Turin four

years ago, would love to thwart that goal

Asked what would make these games special for visitors, the CEO

of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, stressed the excitement and

sense of unity that they are kindling among Canadians.

“Let the world see what good Canadians can do if they work hard

and pull together,” John Furlong said in a telephone interview.

“It’s really a coming out event for Canada.”

Few if any other host cities have faced such an overwhelming and

unexpected crisis as VANOC did the past two years in the form of

the global recession.

“We never thought we’d be confronted with an economy that went

over a cliff,” Furlong said. “We took the company, turned it

upside down, shook it, and everything that didn’t matter we left

out.”

Despite staggering financial woes for some of the corporate

sponsors, VANOC managed to keep its own budget in order. Ticket

sales have been robust, with most events sold out; even the

most-hard hit sponsors – including General Motors of Canada – kept

their commitments; and the International Olympic Committee has

promised to help cover any post-games deficit that might

emerge.

One of the biggest victims of the meltdown may turn out to be

NBC, which has the U.S. television rights to the games. It expects

to lose an estimated $200 million, with advertising revenue not

matching the high bid price of $820 million that it committed to in

2003.

The fiscal crisis forced VANOC to become more creative as it

trimmed some staff and operational costs without scaling back on

the events, festivities and amenities being offered to the Olympic

family and the public.

“We had to pay attention to every single tiny thing we were

doing,” Furlong said. “We didn’t lose anything that anyone else

will notice.”

Now, on the eve of the games, VANOC has declared itself ready to

welcome 5,500 athletes and a projected 350,000 visitors. Trendy

restaurants and bars in Whistler and Vancouver’s Gastown district

will be bustling; official entertainment acts include DEVO, Usher

and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

The influx of visitors will mean some inconveniences. For

example, access to Whistler for Alpine events will be strictly

controlled, and private cars without parking permits will be

stopped at a checkpoint along the 90-mile Sea-to-Sky Highway.

For all events, authorities are advising spectators to arrive at

least two hours early to allow time for the screening process.

The security budget for the games, initially projected at $175

million, quintupled to more than $900 million. Personnel will

include about 4,500 members of the Canadian military; more than

6,000 police officers, mostly from the Royal Canadian Mounted

Police but also scores of other Canadian jurisdictions; and 5,000

screeners hired by a private security consortium to conduct

searches, under RCMP supervision, of people entering Olympic

venues.

“We want to do this in Canadian style – we’re subtle but we’re

ready,” said RCMP Cpl. Bert Paquet, a spokesman for the security

task force.

For some Vancouverites, there’s concern about the hundreds of

surveillance cameras being installed, not only at Olympic venues

but also in some other crowd-attracting parts of the city.

Richard Smith, a communications professor at Simon Fraser

University in suburban Burnaby, has helped lead a campaign to

ensure that all the cameras – whether operated by the city or the

Olympic security team – are dismantled after the games.

“I’m concerned that in the enthusiasm to provide security,

people go way over the top,” Smith said. “Canadians are fairly

anti-surveillance – they like their privacy.”

In most of Canada, Olympic fever has been high – notably during

the torch relay that began in October. By Feb. 12, it will have

passed through more than 1,000 Canadian communities – from major

cities to Arctic hamlets – over a 28,000-mile route.

Not all Canadians are enthralled, of course. Some activists from

Canada’s aboriginal communities have viewed the games as a chance

to press political grievances, and on a couple of occasions

protesters prompted changes in plans for torch relay legs through

native areas.

A rallying cry of these protesters was “No Olympics on Stolen

Land” – a reference to the fact that in much of British Columbia,

unlike other provinces, treaties were never completed to address

the takeover of land by white settlers.

However, the prospect of serious friction diminished once VANOC

established official partnerships with the four First Nations whose

traditional territories overlap the vast Olympic zone.

Another challenge for organizers has been dealing with

Vancouver’s skid-row neighborhood – the Downtown Eastside – an area

just a few blocks from the city center that abounds with run-down

rooming houses, drifters and drug addicts. Prostitutes from the

area were the main targets of serial killer Robert Pickton, serving

a life prison term after being charged in 2002 with the deaths of

26 women.

VANOC and an array of civic leaders depicted the Olympics as a

chance to uplift the Downtown Eastside, pledging to promote new

affordable housing, provide jobs for inner-city residents and

patronize local businesses. Some activists say more should have

been spent to combat homeless and predict the end result will be

gentrification that displaces many down-and-out residents.

Overall, residents of Greater Vancouver have displayed an

understandable ambivalence about some aspects of the games. Many

are wary of the transportation plan that will curtail driving into

downtown, and one recent poll indicated that British Columbians –

more so than residents of other provinces – are apt to think that

too much money has been spent on the games.

Furlong said he understood why some Vancouverites might have

curbed their Olympic enthusiasm to a greater degree than other

Canadians, but senses a change as the opening ceremony

approaches.

“The debates all took place here,” he said. “The whole city

has had to do all the work, the planning, and by the time the games

start, they might have a different view.”

“The community has lived it,” he added. “Now they can enjoy

the fruits of their labor.”