When I arrived in Vancouver, the first thing I noticed was the frowns.
The International Olympic Committee has leased every sign and billboard in town to broadcast Olympic joy, but they can’t purchase people’s faces. It’s clear that the 2010 Winter Games has made the mood in the bucolic coastal city decidedly overcast. Even the customs police officer checking my passport started grumbling about "$5,000 hockey tickets." Polls released on my first day in Vancouver back up this initial impression. Only 50 percent of residents in British Columbia think the Olympics will be positive and 69 percent said too much money is being spent on the Games.
"The most striking thing in the poll is that as the Olympics get closer, British Columbians are less likely to see the Games as having a positive impact," said Hamish Marshall, research director for the pollster, Angus Reid. "Conventional wisdom was that as we got closer to the Olympics, people here would get more excited and more supportive." If the global recession hadn’t smacked into the planning last year, with corporate sponsors fleeing for the hills, maybe the Vancouver Olympic Committee would be on more solid ground with residents. But public bailouts of Olympic projects have decisively altered the local mood.
I spoke to Charles, a bus driver, whose good cheer diminished when I asked him about the games. "I just can’t believe I wanted this a year ago," he said. "I voted for it in the plebiscite. But now, yes. I’m disillusioned." This disillusion is developing as the financial burden of the Games becomes public. The original cost estimate was $660 million in public money. It’s now at an admitted $6 billion and steadily climbing. An early economic impact statement was that the games could bring in $10 billion. Price Waterhouse Coopers just released their own study showing that the total economic impact will be more like $1 billion. In addition, the Olympic Village came in $100 million over budget and had to be bailed out by the city.
Security was estimated at $175 million and the final cost will exceed $1 billion. These budget overruns are coinciding with drastic cuts to city services. On my first day in town, the cover of the local paper blared cheery news about the Games on the top flap, while a headline announcing the imminent layoff off 800 teachers was much further down the page.
As a staunch Olympic supporter, a sports reporter from the Globe and Mail said to me, "The optics of cuts in city services alongside Olympic cost overruns are to put it mildly, not good."
But these aren’t just p.r. gaffs to Vancouver residents, particularly on the eastside of the city where homelessness has spiked. Carol Martin who works in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, the most economically impoverished area in all of Canada, made this clear: "The Bid Committee promised that not a single person would be displaced due to the Games, but there are now 3,000 homeless people sleeping on Vancouver’s streets and these people are facing increased police harassment as they try to clean the streets in the lead up to the Games."
I strolled the backstreets of the downtown eastside and police congregate on every corner, trying to hem in a palpable frustration and anger. Anti-Olympic posters wallpaper the neighborhood, creating an alternative universe to the cheery 2010 Games displays by the airport. The Vancouver Olympic Committee has tried to quell the crackling vibe by dispersing tickets to second-tier Olympic events like the luge. It hasn’t worked.
The people of the downtown eastside and beyond are developing a different outlet for their Olympic angst. For the first time in the history of the games, a full-scale protest is being planned to welcome the athletes, tourists, and foreign dignitaries.
Bringing together a myriad of issues, Vancouver residents have put out an open call for a week of anti-game actions. Different demonstrations on issues ranging from homelessness to indigenous rights have been called. Protesters from London and Russia, site of the next two Olympics will be there. Expect a tent city, expect picket signs, expect aggressive direct actions. Tellingly, according to the latest polls, 40 percent of British Columbia residents support the aims of the protesters, compared to just 13 percent across the rest of Canada. Harsha Walia of the Olympic Resistance Network said, "We are seeing increasing resistance across the country as it becomes more visible how these Games are a big fraud."
The Games will also coincide with the largest and longest-standing annual march in Vancouver, the Feb. 14 Memorial Women’s March meant to call attention to the hundreds of missing and murdered women — particularly indigenous women — in British Columbia. The Vancouver Olympic Committee asked the Memorial March organizing if they would change the route of the march for the Olympic Games. As Stella August, one of the organizers with the downtown eastside Power of Women Group, said to me, "We are warriors. We have been doing this for 19 years and we aren’t going to bow down to the Olympics."
One thing is certain: if you are in Vancouver, and competitive curling doesn’t get your blood pumping, there will be quite the spectacle outside the arena.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected].]