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

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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.













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