Monday, March 1, 2010

What Vancouver Was Chicago Might Have Been

Posted By on 03.01.10 at 07:00 AM

Those of us who wonder what Chicago's Olympics experience would have been if our city had been awarded the 2016 summer games might have just watched a pretty close approximation in Vancouver.

My sister Dixie McIlwraith lives in West Vancouver, just north of Vancouver across the Burrard Inlet. West Vancouver is the gateway to Cypress and Whistler mountains, on which much of the competition was held.

She wrote me:

Ever since Vancouver was identified as the site of the 2010 Olympics there has been local anger. I was upset because I wanted a job at VANOC [Vancouver Organizing Committee] and could not even get a crack at an interview. There was no access to the powers that be.

It seemed pretty clear early on this was to be an event run by the Ol' Boy Vancouver network for other Ol' Boys. The rest of the city, especially if you were non-white, poor, a liberal, an environmentalist, a do-gooder or unemployed, had no voice nor any recognition.

They ran roughshod over the local West Van citizens, destroying protected habitat, creeks, and rare trees to build a new access to the Sea to Sky Highway. In collaboration with the provincial government they ignored suggestions, declined meetings, mocked critics, and eventually jailed two of the many protesters who had set up a tent camp in front of the bulldozers. One of the jailed woman, an elderly native, died in jail.

They worked with the IOC to tightly control any use of the Olympic rings or name so as to gain the dollars from the sponsor who had bought the rights. One local pizza restaurant which had been in business for many years prior to the bid, Olympic Pizza, was sent word to cease using the name or go out of business.

VANOC announced any signs, graffiti, or other public notices negative about the Olympics would have to come down. Freedom of expression replaced the plight of the displaced homeless as a incendiary issue. Then VANOC stepped back and said that really wasn't what they had in mind.

A year before the games were to begin, the Athlete's Village construction ran out of money. By now we were into a serious recession. VANOC had paid top dollar during the boom times for work which would have been cheaper two to three years down the road, and in 2009 the construction companies said they could not possible complete the job for anything like their original bid. The City of Vancouver had to step in.

Throughout, people had complained about money being thrown away which could be put to much better use building public housing, feeding the hungry, improving public transit etc.

In other words, nobody liked the Olympics. Everyone said they were leaving town, avoiding the traffic snarls, and the whole mess.

Then, it opened. Some of us were still here. And a boy died.

Suddenly everything turned around. We saw the real grief on the face of John Furlong, head of VANOC. And everyone shared some of that.

The opening ceremony was filled with Canadian pride, mixed with real sorrow when the Georgian team walked in. I believe those attending would have stood in respect even if Jean Rogge had not started it. I know I would have.

And we have not "owned the podium" but all we really want to do is to win the gold in hockey and not embarrass ourselves.

Vancouver has gone nuts.

I was on the bus from West Van, heading to the ice dancing, and it was filled with adult men and women wearing Go Canada really ugly shirts in red and white, and hats and mittens. And big grins on everyone's face.

Downtown Vancouver is packed with screaming Canadians all in red and white with maple leaves on their chests, hats, faces, and shoes. Everyone is grinning and yelling and drunk and happy. No one mentions homeless, or the Sea to Sky highway protests, or angry signs.

I am part of the cheering section. I screamed at the ice dancing for both the U.S. and the Canadian teams and no one near me minded. They started yelling for both as well when either did something wonderful, and all the while the woman seated next to me kept checking the hockey scores on her Blackberry.

I have always like the winter Olympics better than the summer anyway but strangers on the bus, or in line at the grocery, or on the phone ask if you saw the curling (yea god, who watches curling?) or that Joannie Rochette skate last night, or Cindy Klassen, or what did you think of the opening ceremony (you better have loved it all.) It is intoxicating.

I am not sure if it has united Canada (the French think there was not enough French in the opening ceremony, the English think there was far too much) but it seems as though it has done something good.

It is really a two week party, and everyone has come. You would have enjoyed it.

This sounds a lot like Chicago to me: Heavy-handed, bullying organizers shoving their big plans down the people's throats; mounting resentment; financial folly. And when the games finally began, bliss.

Dixie mentioned that she'd been in Los Angeles for the 1984 summer games, and those were different. "They were beautifully managed, actually made a profit, never inconvenienced any citizen, but, at the same time, I don't remember any euphoria or parading through the downtown streets. It was iust another big event... With Vancouver it is much more personal, for good and bad."

L.A. had had the games before, so maybe that's why it was blase. And as the world's entertainment capital, it has no reason to regard itself as any sort of unknown treasure. It doesn't feel underappreciated.

But Canada does, and Chicago does. Chicago sees itself as the world-class city the world doesn't know anything about. So when the world showed up in 2016 we'd have been tickled pink and we'd have been great hosts. "These are wonderful folks and I'm having a blast," Mary Carillo would have told Bob Costas. We'd have lapped it up.

Then the games would have ended. The world would have gone home and Chicago would have gone back to being Chicago — not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's interesting how few transformational experiences actually are. And the bills would have come in.

As this blog previously noted, the New York Times told us what's in store for Vancouver: "The immediate Olympic legacy for this city of 580,000 people is a nearly $1 billion debt from bailing out the Olympic Village development. Beyond that, people in Vancouver and British Columbia have already seen cuts in services like education, health care and arts financing from their provincial government."

But perhaps the Vancouver games were transformational. Here's a column written from the raptures of new glory by someone who thinks — hopes — Canada will never be the same.

As for Chicago, we'll bask in the glow of the 1933 Century of Progress exposition a little longer. It's what we've got.

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