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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”