March 3, 2010

The Winter Olympics: a debrief via a local Vancouverite.

lululemon athletica + Budweiser beer, Green buildings + bulldozed eagle sanctuary, newfound community + corporate heroism.

It was the last day of the 2010 Winter Olympics, when the sun re-appeared after some days of clouds and rain, casting its timely glow on the dramatic, storybook finish to the Winter Games, a nail-biting, gold medal hockey battle that Canada stole from the US in a sudden death 3-2 finish.

Olympic Torch, Vancouver

While driving out to catch a ferry to Vancouver Island on Sunday evening, I noticed cherry blossoms and magnolias dotting the sidewalks and the Olympic Torch burned high against the North Shore mountains. So much for Snowmageddon and theensuing American cynicism about climate change?

Much has been written about Vancouver’s beauty in the past few weeks and months and years leading up to this event…as residents we were told repeatedly that the eyes of the world would be looking at us and that we should be proud of being the host city.

Thus far, the world has looked upon us mostly approvingly, observing the city’s geography nestled amidst mountains and ocean, singing praises about Vancouver’s cutting edge eco-density initiatives, speaking of these being the “greenest” games and calling the volunteers, who stood for hours at a time amidst cold rain, cheery.

Signs of Spring @ the Winter Olympics, Kits Beach, Vancouver

What the world media doesn’t speak of much is the other side of the games, the fact that though 64% of Vancouver residents voted to host the games, the years leading up to the event had brought with it many challenges and opponents.  From noting how the city’s frenetic spate of activity to create public transit to transport visitors to game venues also managed to bankrupt small mom and pop businesses along its trajectory, to the continual gentrification of the Down Town East Side a.k.a. Vancouver’s poorest postal code, which has displaced more homeless people.

Sticker on a building in Vancouver's DTES (down town east side)

I watched the new Olympic Village rise along the banks of eastern False Creek, a former industrial dead-land, which will now be turned into profitable market-oriented housing.  The original plan for these buildings was that the village, with its gold LEED certified buildings, emblematic of the “green games” was supposed to include mixed income housing – yet the fate of these homes is now uncertain – and in a swoop that silenced many environmental activists, Vancouverites watched a new, “improved” $400 million highway built between Vancouver and Whistler that bulldozed through the Eagle Ridge bluffs, an area cherished as both as old growth forest and eagle habitat. I drove that highway a few nights ago, and it was empty save for a few buses and VANOC cars.

Yes, you might say, these games were more contentious than was let on.   Yet they managed to impact all of us here in Vancouver from the Olympic Fans to the skeptics.  My hope was to watch the goings-on with a critical, yet open eye.

Some observations from the past few weeks:

Sports create community:
Vancouver is not known to be a gregarious city, I remember experiencing the general reticence of the west coast Canadian when I moved here eight years ago.  Yet, having something communal to talk about opens people up.  It’s like smoking for the socially awkward, all of a sudden you know that you can connect with other people about the games and so you do, in lines, waiting to get into a stadium or a venue, or just at a restaurant or bar…all of a sudden you realize that you’re high-fiving a perfect stranger or beaming happily at a random guy you would have never even acknowledged.  I consider this a plus—and it made for very engaging rides on the train downtown and even just walking on the streets of the city.

People love standing in lines for anything free: from hot chocolate, to free coca cola, to lobster at the Newfoundland House, or raclette at the Swiss House, people will stand in interminable lines patiently, in the sunshine (understandable), and in the rain (not yet understandable to this writer) for hours and hours (and longer if necessary).  The clincher: the zip line around downtown Vancouver’s popular Robson Square that lasted about 30 seconds, yet the line up to ride it was 7 hours long. A local TV station, CTV even reported that “waiting in line is part of the Olympic experience.”

Standing in yet another line, bearing flag colours

The Olympics call upon you to dig down deep inside for your inner patriotism: Whereas most of us don’t spend much time thinking about what it means to be Canadian or American or Norwegian or Swiss every day, the Olympics calls upon you to ally yourself to your country, at least on the surface.  In fact, all of a sudden, patriotism equals rooting for your favourite team, and subsequently all your national values.  This may involve emblazoning your country’s colours on your cheeks and eyelids, wearing underwear the colour of your country’s flag and of course wrapping yourself in your nation’s banner.

Coca Cola Tent at the Live City (free) site, Vancouver 2010 Olympics

The Olympics are run by corporations. The IOC is a corporation and VANOC, the local body that organized the Vancouver Olympics is a corporation.  Corporations love other corporations, so you can be certain that the backdrop to everything about the games from sports to art installations is all about sponsorship.  Also thanks to universal media contracts at the time of the games, from your arrival at the Vancouver airport to decals on buses, to billboards all around the city was swathed with advertisements by the Bells, Samsungs, Coca Cola and McDonalds of the world. I observed parents waiting in line to take their children into the Coca Cola tent at one of the city’s downtown Live Site locations (blocked-in sections of Public Space, where large screens showed various Olympic events and bands performed). And what did one learn at the Coca Cola house?  The history of Coke.

How Green the Games were remains to be seen:
Some of the pluses: The Athlete’s Village offered a resurgence to a dormant area of Vancouver’s False Creek neighborhood with a restoration of a heritage building as well as LEED Gold and Platinum certification for all new construction. Yet the fate of mixed income housing planned for after the games is still in limbo. It was one of the original cornerstones of the City’s plan for the area.

Innovative energy tracking allowed spectators to click into a Venue Energy Tracker for a real-time readout of how much energy was being consumed, compared to how much energy might have been used under typical construction methods. In fact, as the Los Angeles Times reported some of the savings: “…an estimated 15.4% reduction in electricity consumption during the second week of events—24,624 kilowatt-hours, for example, saved at Canada Hockey Place.”

Minuses: Environmentalists cried foul at the new highway between Vancouver and Whistler, the Olympic venue for cross-country and various alpine skiing events. “The highway has the highest land-use footprint for the Olympic games” said Ian Bruce, a climate change specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation. And as a local, I wondered why no money was invested in an existing railroad between the two cities that would certainly have had a lower environmental footprint.  In fact, during the Olympics, the 3-hour train between Vancouver and Whistler did run (taking about the same time as the VANOC operated passanger buses), the only caveat, since it was run by the Province of Alberta (which ironically is Canada’s Texas, boasting the now infamous Tar Sand Oil Fields), you had to be an invited guest.

Olympic Athletes eat at McDonald’s: McDonalds had the largest food booth at the Olympic village and was particularly popular amongst athletes for whom ol McD is quite expensive in their home nation.  What I would like to know is whether they ate McDonald’s before they competed, too.

Olympic Tickets are very expensive even for residents
of the host city, and sometimes TV has the best view after all.  Watching the games on TV also allows you not to have to have to sacrifice a day of waiting in line and traveling to and from for seven hours, which in itself might be considered a sport.

Olympic Tourists are overwhelmed
keeping up with the Olympics and don’t venture too from the game venues unless it is to eat or drink.  As a local, we found the two weeks of the Olympics optimal to go to our choice eateries – even ones featured in the New York Times, such as the popular “Vijs” –finding that they were less busy than pre-Olympics, without line ups or hordes of expected visitors.  We also wanted to help support local businesses.

off to some "free" yoga

Vancouver’s Yoga-Loving vibe slowed down but did not die during the Olympics.
Local “yoga-inspired” apparel company lululemon athletica, offered a much-hyped, “gift of yoga” to everyone in Vancouver during the Olympics – i.e. free classes at regional chain studio YYoga’s locations.  YYoga said that 7050 people visited their centers using the “free yoga” passes.  While about half the visitors were local Vancouverites, the others were Olympic tourists.  Said Jennifer DeLucry, YYoga’s marketing manager, “It was nice that we could share a piece of our Vancouver lifestyle with visitors and locals alike.”

However other yoga studios throughout the city did notice a drop in the number of regular students. Olympics or not, it is challenging to compete with “free yoga.”

The Olympics are about life and death condensed:

From the untimely and tragic death of the Georgian Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, at the start of the 2010 Olympics in Whistler, to Canadian Joannie Rochette’s persistence to win a bronze medal in memory of her mother who passed away before the commencement of the games, the Olympics recall the passion we have for living and performing at our highest capacity.  It is about Carpe Diem.  There is no other time than the now.  And watching the athletes hits that home.

Olympic Time magnifies possibilities.
What can happen in a 1/200th of a second is the difference between a medal winner and not.  And all the possibilities that can unfold within 20 seconds seems infinite.  Can you imagine if we all lived our lives like that?  To be aware consistently to how small changes in our mental attitudes can affect the task we are focusing on?  How much determination would this take?

Olympic athletes are amazing!
They are dreamers who realize their dreams, they are focused and passionate about their sport and their lives.  They are role models who have worked really hard to forge that perfect meld of talent and perseverance and they should be allowed to let their hair down once the pressure’s eased.  I was and am inspired by them, as I imagine we all are.

Corporations love athletes:
Athletes are instant celebrities and lets face it, they help companies sell stuff.  The Vancouver games have resulted in new national heroes and their faces are already up on billboards for everything from housing developments to cell phones and clothing.

A Hidden Courtyard, part of the Bright Light Art Walk

Thanks to the Cultural Olympiad, Vancouver now has a legacy of incredible public art.
Yes, this may have also been sponsored partially by corporations, but the city does now have some amazing art, gracing the city squares, plazas and sidewalks.  I hung out with stilt walkers and dancers costumed in ethereal Victorianesque hoop skirts fashioned out of tarp and recycled landscaping fabric, caught a Neil Young Tribute Concert and one of the best modern dance performances I’ve seen anywhere by Canadian Crystal Pite; and watched children interacting with three dimensional art scapes across the city streets.

Jubiliant Crowds take over Vancouver Streets

The post game street party begins to get old…
How many nights of drunk, jubiliant crowds did we see in Vancouver?  Even the rain didn’t dampen spirits.  The police tried closing liquor stores early on weekend nights, but the massive street parties continued.  Can we say enough, already?

The City of Vancouver wins a gold medal for public transit to and from the games.
Plus there was an added bonus: if you did have to drive, the roads were eerily traffic free.

The gold medal hockey game b/w USA + Canada

Hockey can steal your heart (even when you’re not a hockey fan).
It’s fast, furious and gutsy, and over the past weeks, it united this hockey-mad nation.  To all the Americans out there, Canadians are way more hockey mad than you, so imagine how much that gold medal meant to us.  From reports of streets being closed in Toronto to Halifax and even Canadian troops in Kandahar cheering, it was as if Canada came together for a few moments… and for a country that’s persistently calm, the passion was unprecedented.

And maybe that is ultimately the immediate legacy of hosting the Olympic games.  To experience being human in all of its collective energy, to want to be a part of something larger than yourself and for a few moments to lose yourself in it.

I did ultimately get caught up in the Olympic excitement on Saturday Feb 27th, the night of a party hosted by an odd couple: lululemon athletica and Budweiser beer! Proving that yoga and beer either go together, or not (depending on your perspective), the party featured hostesses serving Budweiser beer in lulu gear, an ice bed with a lululemon logo and plastered with yoga mats so you could keep your party finery dry, women gyrating to yoga poses behind lit screens and go go dancers festooned in body paint and nothing else.

As a guest joked, perhaps it does make sense, “there won’t be much drinking going on tonight” – only Budweiser was on tap.

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