February 18, 2010

Worst. Olympics. Ever.

Few with Internet access would contest this statement. It has become the fashion this year to mock all things Vancouver and Olympic. And yet:

After a perfectly cold December, Vancouver was hit by January record high temperatures. And hit. And hit. Four major storm systems lined up to hit Vancouver on the opening day of the Games. The Cypress Mountain venue was a gamble: proximity to the main city against known weather patterns. Such gambles will become ever more frequent in future. Sochi, Russia, home of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, is currently experiencing temperatures more than ten degrees above freezing -- after a similarly bitter December. We may have to re-think how to approach the Winter Olympics altogether.

Vancouver tried to create the (environmentally) greenest Olympics yet. Ironically, this goal is precisely why so much untested and otherwise odd equipment was in use. The Olympia Celletwi is the first pollution-free, nickel-cadmium, battery-powered ice resurfacer; but it turned out that these machines could not stand up to Olympic demands as well as the traditional zamboni. Where there is no local depot, how else can practical hydrogen-fueled buses be demonstrated except by bringing hydrogen in from distant sources through considerably less green routes? There have even been complaints about not being able to use cars in Olympic-dedicated lanes, and about having lost existing bus routes to the new light-transit Canada Line: yet it is the nature of mass transportation that efficiency and personal convenience are inversely correlated. Vancouverites pride themselves on being one of the greenest cities in Canada. Thus far, it was easy. The generally benign climate had not yet forced anyone to make the harder choices.

"Own the Podium" was an unfortunate name for a traditionally modest Canada: but is the essence of the program really any different from other national programs, especially those held by host nations trying to hold their heads high? Canada's previous spending on amateur sports had been among the lowest in the world. While the name comes across as somewhat arrogant, the attitude both of city and of the nation's athletes is entirely different. How many newpapers thought to cover the spontaneous celebratory lunch held by Vancouverites for Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, the Chinese pairs gold champions?

Canada allows free speech -- and so there are protests. The Olympics have long been a focal point for various issues, in part because they are a symbol of much more than bare athletic excellence. In the early days of the torch run, Olympic spirit came alive along its route. Thousands of people gathered and cheered in the chill of the east. There was no torch relay in the early days in Vancouver: so media and security at Olympic-related events often outnumbered protesters, who in turn outnumbered spectators. Once the flame arrived, the city mood changed entirely. At that point, the event became real. What is more, this is the first time ever that an Olympics tried to integrate with the general, non ticket-buying public to turn an athletic competition into a genuinely citywide celebration. One hears about protest after protest -- but how much is said of the turnout at the various Live Sites?

(It makes a curious commentary about our society that at least twice as much as been written about the Vancouver protests as about equivalent Chinese issues during the 2008 Olympics. Out of sight, out of mind?)

Most coverage relating to Canada's indigenous people in the context of the Olympics concentrates on opposition and objections. Opinion among natives is split. Most of the objections are based on the inukshuk not being an appropriate emblem, either Inuit-culturally or because it is not local to Vancouver. A few have opposed unwanted tourism coming to their territory, and have also opposed other tourist-attracting resorts for the same reason. Several native protesters have used the Olympics as a worldwide stage to highlight other, non Olympic-related concerns. The majority of native comments have focused on the high profile of aboriginal values during this Olympics, the highest ever at any Canadian public function, and the ability to showcase their identity to visitors from around the world. Certainly it is the first time since before Canada's creation that First Nations chiefs were given equal status to Canada's head of government. Yet those being given the most television and Internet time are those who have least interest in a cooperative future.

After Vancouver lit its public Olympic cauldron, a chain-link fence was closed around it. Only a short time earlier in the torch run, Vancouver was blamed for letting protesters get too close to the flame. Make no mistake: the protesters are still there. After all, many professional protesters were custom-imported for the occasion -- and there are those among them who had no problem committing property damage, and who would be perfectly willing to sabotage a flame to make a point.

(One protest should be separated out from the others. In a city where sky-high real estate prices contrast desperate poverty, where an apartment the size of two parking spaces goes for $750 a month, low-cost housing and homelessness should be active concerns. Just like every other Olympic city in modern history, Vancouver has tried to lay a pretty fa├žade over its problems. On top of existing issues, the current economic conditions may force a few crucial changes in plans, especially if its Vancouver Athletes' Village is not to be converted at all to low-cost housing. Bringing the torch to the poorest parts of Vancouver opened the opportunity for these issues to be brought to the national stage, however briefly. Is it surprising that this particular protest should have received the least media attention?)

I hoped never to see the death of an Olympic athlete again. Every racing Olympic sport, without exception, has now reached the human threshold where mistakes are often devastating and can be deadly. Crashes, concussions, and broken bones have been the norm at world-class ice sledding and skiing tracks for years. Vancouver is now being blamed for having constructed a course that was too fast, too dangerous. Yet had they not built a challenging track, had they gone the route of safety: would they then be blamed for deliberately denying their athletes the possibility of record times?

Let's also take a look at where the strongest criticism is coming from. The British mass media has been viciously slamming the Vancouver Olympics in every possible way. What does not appear in the British newspapers are the economic issues, logistical nightmares, and occasionally embarrassing slips in their own Olympic preparations. Having to host the first Summer Olympics after the economic meltdown places London in a difficult position. Yet surely British journalists are above needing to hammer down the predecessor in order to make their own situation look better ... aren't they?

The other major source of negativity comes from the United States. Laughter at the lack of snow is natural and to be expected: especially with the extreme weather experienced by Washington DC and other parts of the mid/south east coast in the past few weeks. A metre and more of snow in a matter of days would be problematic for any part of the world, never mind one which is not used to it. (Cross-country skis sold out.)

The general upset at the NBC time-delay, for some reason, also seems to be aimed primarily at Vancouver rather than at NBC. Interestingly, Rogers, a Canadian cable carrier, also flubbed: so that taped coverage of the opening ceremonies cut out before the actual lighting of the flame.

But as to the rest: why the determination to hammer down every positive note and concentrate solely on the glitches? It could not possibly have anything to do with:
  1. the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics (bid bribing scandal);
  2. the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics (bombing, transportation chaos)
  3. or the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics (boycott, absolutely no new venues built, games on a shoestring budget and showed it)
... could it?

Are you starting to get the impression that nothing Vancouver could possibly do would be accepted as right?

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