Robert L. Peters

25 February 2010

Thoughts about… hosting the Olympics


Vancouver, British Columbia

I must say, I have mixed feelings about Canada’s hosting of the current Winter Olympics. As I live several thousand km away and don’t watch television, I’ve been spared the round-the-clock coverage—though I did watch the opening ceremonies online after the fact, as well as two live hockey games (I believe I am obliged to do this, by dent of being a Canadian, eh?). GDC designer colleague Casey Hrynkow (a Vancouverite, so on the doorstep of all the action) has expressed her thoughts on “lessons learned” quite eloquently here, and re-posted below, with permission:

In the late months of 1997, the 2010 Winter Games were a twinkle in the eyes of Bruce McMillan and Rick Antonson of Tourism Vancouver, and then Canucks owner, Arthur Griffiths. It was a buoyant time in Vancouver. The economy was humming along. Tourism was growing. We believed in a better Vancouver. We were innocent of the world-changing events of 2001. At that point, the wheels were set in motion for Vancouver to compete against other Canadian cities to win the right to host the 2010 Winter Games. Thirteen years is a long way out to foresee how these Games might be perceived in 2010. Sometimes you just need to take a shot.

Many people have rightly raised concerns about funding the Games in lieu of other more egalitarian causes. Hosting the Games has been associated with tossing the elderly out of their homes, hiding the homeless and canceling surgeries. Although the rhetoric has been a bit maudlin, much of this may indeed be true. Mistakes and misuse of power exist. I understand the frustration of advocates for the disenfranchised. They have seen Vancouver “gulping the Koolaid” since the Games began. A universal truth, however, is that an issue this complex is not so binary that it can be reduced to an either/or concept.

Spending on culture is never a waste

There was so much angst and anger leading up to the Games about how we could spend money on a “party” rather than health care, education and social housing. There is absolutely no doubt that we must put more into all of these priorities. But this is not all that human beings need.

I cannot imagine a modern society where physical needs are the only concern. People  are recharged and psychologically fed by interacting with society. The ancient practice of meeting in marketplaces and forums is critical to our well being. The eloquent part of that interaction is through the arts. The arts allow us to imagine, to stretch beyond our human form and to escape the day-to-day of just getting by.

I don’t really think anyone but a handful of people had any idea what the Games would do to the streets of Vancouver. We have poured into them, talking to each other, shouting and clapping and laughing. I’ve seen people break into spontaneous dance and song.  Street performers, singers, artists, designers, actors and musicians have pulled us out of our February doldrums and shown us how amazing Vancouver can really be. People say that they want more and they want it to continue. Who can blame them?

We like the world

Vancouverites seem to have discovered that it’s pretty cool to have the world show up. We saw it during Expo ’86 to some degree, but a lot of the people who are now seeing this were babies in 1986. We have peeked out beyond our parochial viewpoints and enjoyed the presence of our global family. A big part of what the Olympics is about is making the world a better place. One of the three Olympic ideals is to “build a peaceful and better world through sport”. That is a very succinct statement but captures issues of the environment, culture and social need. It is a fact that exposure to new ideas makes us more tolerant, more generous and helps us to think more broadly.

We could have done better

Oh, yes. We could have done it better. Not one thing, done by anyone, anywhere at any time has ever been flawless. The Olympic effort as been no exception. There are some big blights on these Olympics. The heavy-handedness with which brand management was handled is now infamous. Not everyone got equal billing. First Nations got too much, and they got too little. Our cultural mosaic was not represented well enough for many. The balance of opinions was not represented. Bad people ruined the legitimate protest of good people.The litany of wrongs is long and bitter.

So what do we do with that? We have amassed a knowledge cache from this that can be put to good use—from funding formulas that work and don’t work to the unerring reliability of the Zamboni. The populace has discovered in staggering numbers that public transit works quite well and I think we’ll see far more use of it going forward. We’ve had time to stare at what being Canadian is about. Perhaps now we’ll have a better idea of how to define ourselves to the world.

Would we do it again?

That’s a great question. I think that we may have collectively realized that this wasn’t such a bad experience. I suspect we will see some long-term economic growth from it, however incremental. If you believe that economic growth increases our ability to fund the social safety net, then economic growth will be a good thing for everyone in Vancouver and the province of BC, not just the privileged.

I think that hosting the 2010 Games was good for our collective psyche. We found out a lot about ourselves and about others. We figured out how to pull together.

If we do something like this again, we will do it better. We need to embrace legitimate protest and honor it, listening carefully to what it asks us to see. We need to consider an even broader perspective of legacies than even these groundbreaking Games managed to do. And, hopefully, we’ll do it while we still have that valuable cache of knowledge at hand. If that is wasted, it will indeed be a lesson lost.

back to News+

© 2002-