The bittersweet Olympics

The 2010 Olympics should not happen. At least that was my first thought regarding this year’s Winter Games, but that didn’t stop me from jumping at the chance to go when I was offered a free flight and accommodations- I mean who wouldn’t . . . right?

Once in Vancouver, it’s hard not to get swept up in the Olympic fervour. After a flight cancellation due to fog and waiting in line for an hour with Toronto-bound travelers, I was placed on a direct flight to Vancouver International- the starting point for most Olympiad enthusiasts and thousands of visitors during the games.

It didn’t take long for conflicting emotions to arise. How much money had the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games spent on massive renovations or the new, pristine Skytrain line extension to the airport- the Canada Line- while hundreds of homeless Vancouverites still walk the East Side? But be still my frustrated mind, maybe there is more to these games than the shortcomings of its governing bodies.

Wandering around the University of British Columbia campus- home of the Thunderbird Arena hosting Ice Hockey- one can glimpse the excitement throbbing in the downtown core. Flag poles adorned with the Olympic regalia lining the streets, the waves of smiling aqua shirt Volunteers and the faux-torch you can get a snapshot with are just on campus teasers of what is in the city’s heart. Olympic pride is intoxicating, even for someone who was predominately Anti-Olympics- as if VANOC somehow released a gas over Vancouver to quell the nay-sayers and drug them with nationalistic pride. It merely took pedestrians in Team Canada apparel or a stranger in the distance cheering “Go Canada!” to make my heart palpate and my head feel I was part of something bigger.

Once I got the chance to settle down in front of a computer, I created a make-shift list of free events I was going to attend- having not enough forethought to plan ahead or the money to attend any real events. My first choice of venues was the Heineken or Holland House, which opened at 8 p.m. and featured famous DJs from the Netherlands. Until my sister burst through the door and announced that Stephen Colbert was filming episodes of the Colbert Report live from a stage on the waterfront the next day. In the meantime my sister and I braved our way through the throngs of people downtown just after Canada beat Norway 7–0 in Men’s Hockey.

The smell of hotdog stands, stale beer and pot perforated the air of Granville Street, the hub of Vancouver’s party scene. Being a Tuesday and still a work night for most Vancouverites, the streets were not as crowded as I expected. However, buskers and waves of red and white were still present. We decided to stop in at Robson Square to check out the laser and light show Ignite the Dream. Backed by vocals from Canadian artists, the light show featured enough Canadian pride to make anyone queasy under normal circumstances, but fortunately for the designers of this electro-light orchestra, the Olympics make for citizens who revel and bathe in over-the-top nationalistic fervour. That point was further proven upon passing The Bay, where we saw the four to six hour line for official Olympic Wear.

With our alarms set for 7 a.m. we slept briefly before arriving at the waterfront for Colbert’s performance. We were thankful for my sister’s friend; an avid Colbert fan who had been in line since 5:45 a.m. and was holding a spot for both of us. While waiting in line, we speculated about Colbert’s entrance. Would he propel down from a helicopter assisted by a flock of eagles? Would a whale breach the surface, Colbert emerging from its gullet to be swiftly carried by an eagle to stage? Unfortunately for us, these fantasies weren’t realized, but his mere presence set off a wave of excitement as intense as the games themselves. Michael Bublé sang the Canadian national anthem to the tune of Star Spangled Banner with Colbert. Michael Eruzione confessed that the Olympics were essentially the “UN in tight Lycra” or “where the world fights its proxy wars on ice.” And ultimately, Bob Costas rode a taxidermy Moose.

When the magic was over, we split off from the main group and made our way through Chinatown, Hastings and Gastown to reach the Cauldron. I got my first real taste of Anti-Olympic sentiment walking through the East Side- billings and anti-games graffiti prominent on the sides of buildings. Such sentiment was less apparent throughout the rest of city, but loomed just below the surface. VANOC and the IOC received considerable criticism for their attempt to deal with the regular tenants of the Downtown East Side.

Vancouver has one of the highest rates of homelessness in Canada and VANOC’s feeble effort to displace thousands of homeless from the streets brought more attention to this issue- most protestors carry anti-poverty and pro-housing project placards. Those who wish to protest the Olympics and Paralympics for the entire duration of the games can find solace in the Tent City set up at Pigeon Park, the central hub for the homeless.

Another noticeable aspect of Chinatown and East Hastings is that next to the occasional “Go Canada! Gold!” signs in shop windows, it’s hard to tell the city is hosting the games. The organizing bodies’ worries about Olympic inspired chaos seem to be unfounded. A hum of excitement runs through the city, but aside from the masked protestors smashing The Bay windows, the crowds have been tame.

Despite broad criticism of the Winter Olympics, the Pride House on Davie Street has garnered significant positive feedback. Professional sports are still predominately conservative and masculine (perhaps with the exception of figure skating) which makes it hard for athletes, organizers, coaches and others involved to come out publicly. However in the wake of hockey’s Brian Hirsk coming out- who recently died in a car crash- and the Pride House being erected, a gate opened for those who have kept their sexual orientation a secret in fear of shame and rejection from fellow athletes and the public.

Once we reached downtown, we decided to check out the Aboriginal Pavilion located in the Pan Pacific Hotel. Much criticism has been levied at VANOC for not focusing enough on Aboriginals before and during the Olympics. Aboriginal Tourism BC organized the majority of Aboriginal venues and events which featured live dances, local artists from Squamish, Haida, Musqueme and other Aboriginal nations as well as talks for anyone interested in Canada’s Aboriginal culture and history.

Our last stop for the day was to check out the infamous Olympic Cauldron. Unfortunately, the Cauldron was surrounded by an eight foot chain link fence and the only way to take an unobstructed photo was to wait in line for over an hour to scale the stairs. VANOC was in negotiations to use a lower fence and has since switched to a clear plastic barrier. Because of protests preceding and during the first days of the games, there are concerns that the Cauldron could be defaced. This seems unlikely given the 24-hour security and hoards of pro-Olympic fan boys who would not hesitate to tackle any vandals, but VANOC refuses to dismantle the wall between the ultimate symbol of the games and its adoring public.

Later on, while crossing the Granville Bridge, we heard yodeling. It seems that before we even reached Granville Island, we found the Swiss House. Not only was there yodelling at the Swiss House, authentic Swiss pork sausages, slices of rye bread covered with sauerkraut and cheese and, of course, the famed Swiss protein crackers were served, all backed by a stand up bassist and an accordion player.

The Heineken House would be the ultimate way to cap off the 2010 experience on a student budget. The venue was touted to hold up to 4,000 and I was determined to be one of those non-Dutch attendees.

On the bus heading to the Richmond Oval, or the aptly named O-Zone, everyone erupted into a rendition of “O Canada” in tribute to the Men’s Hockey Team who had just won a close game against Team Switzerland. The Thursday crowds were the largest yet thanks to the recent Canadian win. The celebratory air increased tenfold as chants and horns blasted throughout the core. Even away from the Skytrain’s considerable crowd, Olympic gusto was prevalent.

When we got to the Heineken House we learned that it was at capacity, but I was willing to wait until it emptied a bit. Apparently, though, once the House reaches capacity they close it off to the public until the next day. The only way to get in is with a Dutch passport. Attempts to barter our way in or sneak around the back failed, but just across the field Our Lady Peace was playing a free concert. I briefly treated my inner 15-year-old.

Leaving about 20 minutes later, my attention was drawn to a pile of flyers. As I inspected one, I felt a little crestfallen. They called attention to the notorious sex trafficking industry- especially of underage girls- in Canada. The Olympics have become a podium not only for athletes, but for human rights, animal rights and environmental activists to have their voices heard while the world watches Vancouver.

It’s difficult to say whether the apparent success of the games in the face of much criticism is due to the competency of the organizing bodies or the work of thousands of volunteers and proud Canadians who have made this event so memorable and enjoyable for millions of participants and viewers. It is easy to get swept up in the Olympics in the host city- as easy as it is to judge from a distance. Becoming the host city and province has infected the majority of West Coast occupants- one can expect great service and smiles with the politeness Canadians are known and mocked for.

Raised awareness of rights violations and the undercutting tactics of the governing bodies, like the attempted exodus of the homeless to an abandoned mental asylum or the $16 million in education funding cuts alongside a post-secondary tuition increase, may result in the stronger enforcement of laws and regulations being required of host nations before the Olympics can take place on their soil.

Until then, the Olympics and Paralympics will always take precedence over a majority of issues in the host country. Hopefully everyone will get a glimpse of the IOC’s increasing accountability when all eyes turn to London for the 2012 Summer Games.

source: http://thegauntlet.ca/a/story/14302?print=1

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