While in Vancouver on a business trip, Jessica Nichols took a stroll along the city’s downtown waterfront on a recent crisp winter evening and happened upon the Olympic cauldron, an unmistakable reminder of the 2010 Winter Games.
Nichols, an avid fan of the Olympics — “I watch everything, but that’s my thing,” she says — recognized it immediately: five luminescent pillars propped up against each other like matchsticks.
“It was smaller than we expected,” says the 31-year-old Toronto resident, who returned the following day to have another look in the sunlight, the faint hint of disappointment in her voice. “It looks so big on television. It looked so big at the time.”
Aside from the cauldron, Nichols couldn’t name anything obvious in Vancouver that seems to have changed because of the Olympics, at least nothing that stands out in her mind compared with the last time she was on the West Coast, in 2008.
The same may be true for people who live in Vancouver. While the Games were omnipresent here in February 2010, entire downtown streets filled with fans and the Olympic rings visible pretty much everywhere, even the largest relics of the event have the tendency to fade into daily life.
The convention centre that sits next to the cauldron, which was built to house broadcast media during the Olympics, is now just another space for conferences and events. The light-rail line between the airport and downtown Vancouver is merely an arm of the region’s transit system. The upgraded Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler is just that — a highway. Even the financially troubled Olympic village condominium project has gone out of its way to rebrand itself as simply The Village, minus the Olympics.
Four years later — as the world’s attention turns to the next month’s Winter Games in Sochi, with their $51-billion price tag — the debate about the long-term impact of hosting the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and whether they were worth the cost, has yet to be resolved.
Rob VanWynsberghe, a University of British Columbia researcher who conducted an impact study for the International Olympic Committee, says the most obvious legacies are the infrastructure projects that were either built specifically for the Games or sped up because of the event. Organizers focused on ensuring those projects would be used after the Games.
That also includes the Canada Line rail link to the airport, the convention centre, the Richmond Olympic Oval, which is now a community sports facility, and the widened Sea to Sky Highway. There are also smaller projects, such as a new community centre in the Trout Lake area of Vancouver that was used as a practice rink during the Games and new accessible playgrounds in the city and elsewhere in the province.
Those construction projects were funded primarily with billions of dollars from Ottawa and the British Columbia government, notes VanWynsberghe, making the Games a relative bargain for Vancouver.
“We talk about these being national events,” he said. “There are some psychological aspects that are national, but the efforts to truly nationalize the event are very limited.
“This is really about Vancouver trying to get Ottawa and Victoria to give us money.”
In fact, VanWynsberghe’s most recent Olympic impact study, released last fall, concluded that for every $1 Vancouver taxpayers spent on Olympic infrastructure, B.C. and Ottawa chipped in a combined total of $12.
The Vancouver Olympics cost roughly $7.7-billion, when taking into account construction and the operations of the Games themselves, according to VanWynsberghe’s research. Of that, about $4.8-billion, or 62 per cent, came from public funding.
When it comes to the potential economic boon associated with the Games — a selling point repeated often by anyone pushing an Olympic bid — VanWynsberghe’s research found no noticeable long-term increase in either tourism or the economic performance of the city.
Gordon Price, a former Vancouver city councillor who now runs the City Program at Simon Fraser University, says it would be possible, and probably cheaper, to build infrastructure such as the Canada Line without hosting a major event such as the Olympics.
However, he says the symbolic power of Olympics encourages politicians to spend seemingly endless amounts of money while avoiding the opposition and bureaucratic hurdles they might otherwise have faced.
“Politically, when it comes to sports, throw out ideology and the usual bluster about taxpayers dollars,” he said. “If you were putting your priorities out on the hustings to say, ‘Yeah, we will spend billions for a one-off event for some of the most obscure sports on the planet,’ there’s no way you can justify that. But we do.”
Supporters of the Games also point to a more ethereal benefit, measured in the red mittens that became the must-have souvenir for anyone claiming to be an Olympic fan.
“We all wore the red and white and felt proud of our place — that’s a unmeasurable, intangible benefit, but it’s pretty real,” said Price. “Did it stay? It’s hard to tell, but I think, yes, it was probably important to our sense of ourselves.”
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who was elected a year and a half before the Olympics, can’t say enough about how positive the Games have been for his city.
Robertson points to the airport train line as the “centrepiece” of the Olympic legacy, as well as new community facilities. The city’s public transit plan for the Games has had a lasting impact on how people get around, he said.
And the mayor insists his city’s economy is better off now than it would have been without the Games.
“The Olympics were a big catalyst for putting Vancouver on the world map and really elevating the city on the world stage,” said Robertson. “More importantly, I think it shored up our status as a business destination. It has led to a lot of great economic development, as well.”
The Olympics also fuelled a vocal protest movement, whose refrain of “bread not circuses” encapsulated their opposition to what they argued were the excesses of the Games. There were protests throughout the Olympics, including one on the first full day of the Games that turned violent as activists smashed windows and faced off with riot police.
Chris Shaw, a neurology professor at the University of British Columbia who emerged as one of the most prominent anti-Olympic activists, says the intervening four years haven’t changed his opinion.
“I didn’t think it was worth it at the time, and I certainly see nothing in our city in hindsight that makes me think, ‘Gee whiz, maybe I was too fast to dismiss the whole exercise,“’ said Shaw.
Shaw says even lasting infrastructure projects such as the new airport transit line don’t do much to improve his assessment of the Games, because those things could have happened without what he feels are the inherent the problems of hosting the Olympics.
“For a lot less than $6-billion, you could have built a lot more mass transit that would have transformed the city,” he said. “What’s left? We had a party and some people had fun. Partying is something you do when you have your other stuff done. You don’t party when your kids still have to be fed.”