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Eight Billion Dollars Got Canadians High on the Olympics. Was it Money Well Spent?

Looking back from the Olympic flame in the days when a fence still surrounded it in a photograph by Linda Solomon

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.

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