Eight Billion Dollars Got Canadians High on the Olympics. Was it Money Well Spent?
Now that the circus has left town, it’s time for a serious debrief. In other words, what the military call a “hotwash." What went right, what went wrong, what could be improved, and so forth.
So here goes. Note that I’m probably going to offend nearly everyone, so your blistering rebuttals will be welcome to round out the analysis. T
First, a disclaimer: My “15 minutes of fame”, as many of you have noted, has gone on more than long enough. I couldn’t agree more. Indeed it’s been 7 years, 7 months, some days (and 45 minutes) too long since the fateful day I walked into the CBC studio in September 2002 and recorded my negative “Commentary” about Vancouver’s Olympic bid. Had I known then where this would all lead, would I do it all again? It’s doubtful, as the outcome came with enormous costs to family and friends, relationships, and my scientific endeavors. Sometimes I truly wish I were a “paid professional protester” because at least if so I could have made a few bucks with this “hobby”.
Do I regret it?
No. At least not much, for reasons to be detailed below.
My goals were simple at the outset.
First, open a discussion about the merits and demerits of hosting the Olympics.
Then, after the plebiscite was announced, the goal changed to keeping a countervailing view alive in the face of the Bid Corp’s endless hype. After Vancouver “won” the games in July 2003, the notion was to try to watchdog the circus since it was perfectly clear that we couldn’t trust any level of government to do so. Correctly so, as it turned out. Anyway, all of this was more or less accomplished. My book, Five Ring Circus, and Conrad Schmidt’s documentary with the same name kept some discussions going.
It seems clear to me that the scrutiny we provided may have kept the process from completely devolving into a media-sponsored Olympics love fest. Or maybe the media would have begun asking their own hard questions eventually. Or not.
Were our criticisms of VANOC and the games in general valid?
Yes, I think so, and here’s why:
Costs: Absurdly higher than VANOC or any level of government was ready to admit, then or now. The final number will come in north of $8 billion. How much north we may never know due to a rather stunning lack of accountability, hidden funding, massive levels of indirect funding, etc. In other words, the sort of shell game/watch the pea trick that governments facing scrutiny about Olympic costs normally engage in. There is nothing new here historically, hence an utterly predictable outcome.
Financial benefits: Neither macro nor mico-economics support the notion that the Games were a fiscal success for BC.
At the macro level there is still blathering about long term economic impacts, but these are well within the range of the unknowable.
Up to now, the PriceWaterhouseCoopers impact study pretty much sums it up: All levels of government spent the above $8 plus billions of hard earned taxpayer money to make $1 billion.
Not, to my way of thinking, a particularly astute investment. BC Finance Minister Colin Hansen could be right that the Games will be an economic stimulus in the future, but how would we know this for sure in context to the volatility of the market, real estate, the resource sector, etc.?
Answer: we wouldn’t. Ditto for those who, like me, might try to portray the Games as having hurt the future economy. All we can honestly say is that the dollars put into the Games did not go into other things that might have had greater economic and social impacts.
Opportunity costs, for those of you interested in economics, are quite real. Whether the money would have been spent for social issues, however, is actually unclear. Indeed, those who claim it naïve to assume that the money would have been spent this way (would, not should) are probably correct.
At the micro economic level, did businesses do well? Downtown, yes; elsewhere almost certainly not. Doubts? Ask some local merchants outside of the downtown core.
Megaproject legacies: New convention centre (yes, the Board of Trade and Concert Properties wanted this and it’s good for them). For the rest of us, it’s merely a major taxpayer subsidy of the private sector.
Sea to Sky upgrade: It was going to happen anyway according to some. Maybe. Who benefited? Whistler and those living in the new condos along the route, for sure. Did anyone outside this zone who doesn’t drive the route? Nope. If you doubt this, try selling this project to the nice folks in Prince George and elsewhere in the province that aren’t having the best time financially.
RAV/Canada line: Maybe an overall benefit in the long term. Going to do it anyway? Nope. The most urgent mass transit option for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland: almost for sure not.
Environment: “Greenest Games” ever? Puleeze!
I know the Suzuki Foundation got sucker punched on this, but consider Eagleridge, the Callaghan, 3.5 megatonnes of C02, habitat lost, need I say more? LEED standard buildings (sometimes), sure, some attempt to minimize the footprint, sure. Overall, not even close to green except as “greenwash”.
Civil liberties: The City of Vancouver and the Province opened up some nasty precedents with their Olympics-related bylaws and bills. The Integrated Security Unit (ISU) had trouble distinguishing protest from real threats to human lives. Those who argue that the broken windows provided by Black Bloc proved the need for massive policing might want to reconsider this view in light of the overall security costs ($900 million we know about). That’s a lot of loose change to protect windows (that didn’t even get protected.)
The overall problem with the security costs, apart from the utter fraud with the initial numbers, is that if you give the cops an endless budget and tell them to be afraid of absolutely everything, they will comply. But if you need to be afraid of everything, doesn’t this raise questions about the value of the overall project itself?
CCTV cameras are now in our lives, perhaps to stay. The argument that you don’t need to worry about these if you aren’t doing something wrong is, well, just stupid from any civil libertarian perspective. Unless, of course, you like the government knowing about you 24/7, that is. In which case, open a Facebook account and leave the rest of us alone, okay?
Accountability: Even the most boosterish of Games supporters can’t really claim that there has been anything like full accountability, at least not without neutral observers questioning their sanity.
Democracy: Nope. It was a plebiscite (an opinion poll), damnit, not a legally binding referendum. It involved 12% of BC’s population. The other 88% are paying the bills too. ‘Nuff said.
Poverty and social issues: What got better? Nothing. Did homelessness get worse? For sure. Can we place the blame squarely on the Olympics? No. Was it a related factor due to cash going to Olympic projects versus housing? In principle, yes. In reality, likely not since public sentiment for diverting tax dollars to housing the homeless still does not seem to have registered in a significant way. This is too bad from a number of perspectives, but seems to be the way it is…and is likely to remain.
Native issues: Better or worse? It completely depends on who you talk to. Native culture was highlighted according to some, exploited according to others. Will anything get better for BC’s or Canada’s Native population due to the Games? With treaty processes largely stalled in BC and with the new budget cuts across a number of sectors, it’s hard to see how. The limited Native component in the Olympic Closing Ceremonies suggests that Native involvement had served its VANOC public relations purpose and was now forgotten.
Party aspects: No question, there were large crowds downtown, largely pretty happy with the endless party, free music, and fun stuff to do. Many were from other countries so their sense of how “fun” it was in part stems from not having to help pay the eventual bills. Many of these folks here and across the country found a new sense of patriotism in the Games (actually, more likely in beating Team USA in hockey, but leave this aside for now.) This was a largely self-selecting crowd, however, locked into a positive feedback loop by the media: “Large party downtown” media coverage helped generate large parties downtown…at the same time, about 12% of the population of Greater Vancouver fled abroad; others simply stayed home.
Remarkably, a few thousand showed up to protest, with the demonstrations of various kinds lasting four days.
As for comments that the party overwhelmed the protests: Sure, in numbers, it did. But let’s just say for giggles that three levels of government had given tens of millions to the Work Less Party (famous for their parties) and let them organize a street bash. Would we have rocked the city even more than the Olympics? Oh, yes.
Renewed patriotism: Maybe. Or maybe it was something not quite Canadian in either history or spirit? Take for example the Torch Relay: a pure propaganda stunt of the Nazis in 1936 that has somehow come to be equated with the Olympic ideals and peace. “Nazi, schmatzi”, say my critics. An unfair bit of rhetoric? But maybe the connection is a bit too close to home?
The Olympic Resistance Network:
A variety of social justice, political, and other individuals and groups began to discuss opposition to the Olympics back in 2007. In the space of about three years and with little money, they put together the largest anti-Olympic protest in Olympic history. Not too shabby, all things considered. The overall goals were varied, but built around the broken promises about poverty/homelessness, Native rights, and the environmental impacts of the Games. ORN organized around the slogan, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”.
The slogan did have resonance for many in Native communities, in the Downtown Eastside, with various foreign groups concerned about such issues, but had marginal impacts outside these groups and may even have been a distraction. The primary reason is the simple fact that most British Columbians, and other non-Native Canadians, don’t seem to care very much. It was also fairly easy for VANOC and the provincial government to dismiss given the presence of the official “Four Host Nations” as Olympic partners. Basically, it came down to this: pro and anti-Olympic forces each had their own Native contingent, making it hard for any but the most doctrinaire to make any blanket claims about Native sentiments about the Games.
Was ORN effective in getting the word out? Initially, yes. Did this have much impact? Again, yes, in the sense that thousands of people hit the streets in protest, an Olympic first. Did these stop the Games? No, but the protests never intended to. Stopping the Games would have been an entirely different endeavor that would have been unlikely to succeed without some really serious street actions and disruptions. That was never in the cards, regardless of what ISU believed.
Without going into an analysis of black bloc thought and tactics, did the Feb. 13th march help or hurt? For many of those involved, the feeling is that the “diversity of tactics” was a success and empowering to those normally not empowered. Various allies of ORN agreed. However, the wider public didn’t see it this way, at least based on the dubious wisdom of various polls. ISU also saw it as a clear win for their side as the media depicted the outcome as “bad protesters vs. restrained, professional, cops”.
The long term impact on any future organizing in Vancouver around social justice issues between those who thought the tactics peachy or those who thought them stupid is still up in the air. My gut sense is that the groups that worked together will continue to do so and that any apparent rift is more transient that substantive.
One significant problem that ORN and related groups faced was this: By the time the Olympic circus hits town, it’s not really about sports for most folks (hockey aside in Canada), it’s about the party. Parties, in general, and more so funded up the ying-yang by all levels of government are even more fun. They seem to be so positive. Anti-Olympic messages seem so negative and no-fun. In a battle between fun and no-fun, the fun side is going to win hands down every time. And they did. Mix in hockey gold, beer (and BC bud), and sunshine and it’s pretty much all over for most folks. Olympic organizers who had been in past host Olympic cities knew this in advance. ORN did not. In the end, the “right to party” dominated the right to protest and, as one commentator to my blog has noted, “we took the streets for our side”. Not completely correct, but not totally wrong either.
One lingering critique is that those of us opposed to the Games tended to treat pro-Oly people like slow children who couldn’t do math. This was unfair of us: the pro side is made up of fully functional adults…who can’t do math.
Finally, there is this: One commentator before the Games began noted that the Olympics had divided the city. This was true. All the subsequent partying didn’t change the underlying division and the city remains divided in many ways.
The line in sand for many of us is not that some people supported the fun of the Games while others didn’t. It’s really larger than that: The Olympics are a microcosm of a larger problem, one that puts profit before people. In this sense at least, being for or against the Games reflected quite contrary -and I think - irreconcilable, world views.
Now is not the time or place to enumerate contrasting belief systems except to note that a line has been drawn, as it has many times and places before. We are doomed to revisit it again, Olympics or not, until justice really prevails for those who have none and until communities can really decide their own futures.
Whether we cross this divide to find our common humanity is, for me, an open question. I will remain, for now, an agnostic on the subject.
And with my 15 minutes now up, I’ll leave it at that.