Christian Organization Affiliated with VANOC has 24-year History with IOC

When news hit that the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympics (VANOC) has authorized the Christian organization More Than Gold to serve beverages at four of its official transit hubs, many local organizations felt they had been excluded from an important opportunity. “It may be because we were asleep at the switch,” said Conrad Hadland, a board member of the B.C Humanist Association. “I suspect there was little attention paid by us to VANOC, but we might in the future now that we are awakened to the possibility.”

Realizing such a possibility, however, would require something on the order of a 24-year history with the International Olympics Committee (IOC). According to Tom Cooper, More Than Gold chair of the board, the organization’s affiliation with VANOC has roots in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when the organization Global Events Network was founded to provide the IOC a reliable volunteer base, and a visible presence at international sporting events for the Christian community. “When we got the bid in 2004, Global Events Network got in touch with us. We got in touch with [VANOC CEO] John Furlong, said ‘here’s some letters of references.’ They got in touch with us,” said Cooper. Cooper said the IOC has an ongoing relationship with Global Events Network “because they don’t look for money, they’re just happy to help.”

According to More Than Gold executive director Karen Reed, the organization’s official role in the 2010 Olympics will be to provide chaplaincy in the Olympic Village and serving beverages at four TransLink hubs: Langara College, Simon Fraser University, BCIT and Capilano University. At the transportation hubs, the organization will be serving water, coffee and hot chocolate. Since the organization is subject to VANOC guidelines at the transportation hubs, they will not be allowed to display the More Than Gold logo, distribute any materials besides beverages, or engage in conversations of a spiritual nature. The Salvation Army, which is providing the canteens for beverage distribution, will be allowed to display their logo.

Reed emphasized that More Than Gold is providing a social service, not trying to proselytize or serve corporate interests. “The interest isn’t in serving VANOC. All we’re doing is serving in public places where there is a need, where people might be waiting for an hour. It is just public hospitality,” said Reed. However, spiritual conversation seems to be an emphasis of the More Than Gold website, which states in the Opportunities Section, “As many as 3,000 volunteers from around the world will come to Vancouver to help with outreach efforts…Some will ride the bus and Skytrain and walk the city, striking up conversations, offering More Than Gold trading pins and literature, and sharing their faith, as opportunities arise.” Furthermore, since VANOC restrictions mandate that only Coca-Cola beverages can be served at official sites, the organization’s presence at the transportation hubs will directly profit the corporate sponsor. Reed estimated that purchasing Coca-Cola products to serve at the four transportation hubs will result in $60,000 in costs to her organization.

To some Vancouverites, the mixing of religion and the Olympics raises questions. “Why did VANOC choose one religion for this privilege?” asked Rosalee Yagihara, Vancouver resident and media producer. “I have no problems with Christianity, but the Olympics is a well-known and sought-after event for corporate sponsors to market themselves. So for a religious organization to be given official permission to represent themselves at the games appears to be beneficial branding to that religion.”

Others find the blending of sports and religion dissonant. “When I compete in sports I don’t compete under my religion, I compete as an athlete,” said Hesham Nabih, vice president of the BC Muslim Association. Reflecting on VANOC’s treatment of the More Than Gold proposal, Nabih said, “We don’t have a problem with it, but why didn’t VANOC invite others? It would have been more representative of BC or Canada to invite other social groups.”

While VANOC could not be reached for comments, More Than Gold’s spokespeople said their role in the Games was the result of perseverance and flexibility. Tom Cooper said that John Furlong stressed during initial talks that More Than Gold would not have exclusive rights over any other religious or social group. “Any organization that took initiative would be invited to serve,” said Karen Reed. Reed said that while her organization has not actively contacted other religious groups to work with them at the beverage canteens, all denominations are welcome to volunteer.

With a conspicuous absence of other large religious organizations working at official VANOC sites, and considering the long timeline of Global Events Network’s relationship with the IOC, Ms. Yagihara asks, “Is Christianity now the official religion of the Olympics?”

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