Olympic follow-up

I’ve been wanting to do a follow-up for some time to my posts on the Vancouver Olympics. I realised that I came off sounding pretty radical and I want to share some of what I saw and felt during and after the event.

Prior to the games I was quite cynical about what they were about and what they would do. Overall, I think I lost a great deal of that cynicism but I can’t exactly say it was replaced with optimism. Except for the conspicuous commercialisation I enjoyed what I saw happening in Vancouver. People were out taking over their streets, celebrating their homes and their heroes. To the average Canadian, the Olympic games were just plain wonderful and I had the privilege of walking amongst those good vibes on my downtown streets.

That’s not to say that everyone was happy and joining in. Just down the road a homeless awareness demonstration worked to shine a light on the problems being ignored and pushed aside so the games could take place. What do you do?¬† I know I’d rather live in a society where both of these things can happen than one that stifles dissent with force.

I don’t disparage either party their point of view. In the end, and largely thanks to the efforts of activists, I didn’t see that the games did a whole lot of harm. That said, I also can’t see that they did a whole lot of good either considering the price tag. Vancouver managed to get some major projects underway and completed, but the bulk of this multi-billion dollar extravaganza was burnt up as a party fund.

It’s been several months since the Olympics packed up and left town and except for the waterfront torch site you might not even know they had ever been here. Gone are all the banners, the colourfully wrapped fences, the Olympic volunteers in their bright aqua jackets, the screaming throngs in their red and white, high-fiving their way across town. During the games it seemed there would be no end to Canadian flag waving. I’ve never seen this country’s people so into their colours and national identity. But it vanished as quickly as it came and it’s hard to tell if that burst of pride will have any lasting, positive impact.

So what changed?

Well for one we woke up to some changes, some expected and some not. Granville Street downtown is largely still closed off to traffic and is being used as a pedestrian mall again for much of the summer. The city also used the traffic closures to build a separated bicycle corridor into¬† downtown. This has since been extended right into the downtown core and will soon connect with the Burrard Bridge bicycle lane to improve city cycling dramatically. There’s the wonderful new Canada Line train, the fiasco of the not-so-social housing in the Olympic village, the expansion of the highway to highly-exclusive Whistler, and several new community sports facilities.

More importantly though, I think Vancouver’s sense of itself grew up a bit, if just a little bit. I’ve long seen this city as being highly self-conscious and wrapped in an inferiority complex. Vancouver always seems to be trying to convince its peers just how grown up a city it is. That’s why we went out to get the Olympics in the first place. But I think we surprised ourselves. We expected to show the rest of the world that we’re all grown up and instead we started to show ourselves.

We got through contentious protesting. We wrestled with rapidly shifting traffic closures. We partied in the streets largely without incident. This last one can’t be overstated. It’s been a fight for Vancouver to accept that it’s citizens might be responsible enough to stay out late and have a good time. If we can build on and internalise this trend we might stop trying to prove our city’s greatness to others and simply live it like all truly great cities do.

All in all I have positive memories of the Vancouver Olympics. I can’t say I’d do it all over again or that I wouldn’t have fought them when and how I did, but I don’t regret the experience for myself or my city. Vancouver is a great place to be and if I was an Olympic nut I’d probably want to hold the party here too.

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