Let the games begin!

Olympic RingsBack in 2003, I voted against Vancouver hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. Our new mayor had run on a platform that included a referendum on whether we should hold the Olympics, even though the IOC had already awarded them to the city. I don’t think such an Olympic referendum had ever occurred before and I imagine the IOC will do whatever they can to ensure it doesn’t again. Either way, history speaks for itself and we are now just over 3 weeks from the opening ceremonies.

Now, up until recently I thought I’d just get out of the city while the games were on. I don’t really have an interest in viewing the events and figured the mess wouldn’t be worth staying for. But recently my opinion has begun to change. I’m actually getting excited about this!

While I could do without the nationalism, I’ve never had a problem with the athleticism of the games. It’s great that people have a chance to compete at the highest levels on a world stage, a chance to realise a dream of greatness in their chosen sport.

That said, I have a lot of problems with the Olympics on the economic and cultural levels. If a city can afford to host the games then more power to them. But when the referendum was held it was pretty obvious that Vancouver had enough problems finding funding and inspired ideas for dealing with important things like healthcare, education, affordable housing, and the open drug market in the Downtown Eastside. The idea of distracting ourselves from these issues by blowing our stack on a massive party left an ugly taste in my mouth. Leading up to the games our handle on these problems has ranged from stagnant to degraded. Let’s be clear here, the Olympics generally lose money. Whether or not the games stimulate the economy in the long run is little consolation to those waiting for ambulances, teachers losing their jobs, or people who can’t afford to live in their own town.

Culturally, I respect what the Olympics claim to be about. The idea of bringing people together in healthy competition is a worthwhile endeavour.

But in truth the games have become a massive budget reality TV program, and a platform for questionable sponsors to build unearned positive images on. To the people of this city, most of whom have neither the time nor the money to see the events, the Olympics are a largely inaccessible invasion. Security precautions mean contact with the athletes and visitors will be severely restricted. It’s not even possible for the public to walk near the display of national flags, a supposed symbol of the unity of nations. Wanting to present a positive face to the world but having spent all our cash on the party, we simply sweep our problems off the streets and into another. Attempts are being made to introduce bylaws to stifle dissent in a country that celebrates freedom of speech. How is this a celebration of the diversity of culture? I can see why the IOC warmed to China holding the games.

Even the Olympic brand has become sullied and tarnished through associations to fast food and soft drinks. This massive sellout of values to the highest bidder strips the Olympics of their connection to excellence, achievement, teamwork, fair competition, and health. The IOC has a vested interest in protecting corporately sponsored speech over freedom of speech of the people and they behave accordingly. For many people the Olympics have come to symbolise excess and oppression as much or more than the spirit of unity.

So, given my rant, how can I be excited about the arrival of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver? The truth is, there’s an incredible vibe in this city right now that the Olympics will provide an opportunity to express healthy dissent and alternatives to the status quo despite the efforts of the IOC and local authorities. Various culture-jamming posters and messages have been appearing around the city and in local media using the Olympic symbols to make bold statements and focus dissatisfaction. Protests and events are being planned to draw attention to problems this city faces and the effects of the Olympics at ground zero. This could only happen in a place with the freedom to speak and a powerful grassroots political sensibility.

Make no mistake, the games are a political event. The Olympics suck money out of public funding, impose massive and contentious development projects on local communities, and stifle freedom of speech, all the while providing a channel for politicians and corporations to paint themselves and their plans in a positive light. The people of Vancouver might be best positioned to share their true feelings about the Olympics and counter the feel-good whitewash the IOC tries to paint over the matter. There are enough aware, compassionate, and media-savvy people in this town to really blow the paint off the whole olympic facade and let people see this reality show for what it really is.

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