The 2010 Winter Olympics cost more than $7-billion to stage, but they were worth it because they spurred major infrastructure developments that helped transform Vancouver and Whistler, a new study concludes.
But while Canada got an image boost and felt a surge of national pride, the tangible benefits have mostly been enjoyed by the two host cities, says Rob VanWynsberghe, an education professor at the University of British Columbia who researched the event for the Canadian Olympic Committee.
"I think Vancouver and Whistler did well. … I wouldn't say the same for the province or the country," he said Wednesday.
"I think the overall lesson is that these are a very specific kind of phenomena. If you want to look at impacts you focus on the host city … there's spillover, but it's not sea to shining sea."
The Olympics were a galvanizing force in B.C. for several years leading up to 2010, but the long-term social and economic impacts have been unclear.
The report states that the Games did not provide a significant boost in tourism, nor did the event appear to significantly change the international images of Vancouver or Whistler.
Compared with Edmonton and Toronto, Vancouver and Whistler had no significant increase in tourism in 2010 over 2009. "This finding suggests that being an event region had little to no effect on the number of overnight tourists during the event year," the study states.
The report also says the Games, "did not appear to have influenced the attractiveness of the host [cities] with respect to either Consumer Price Index or the [value of the] real estate market … [with] no unusual change in either."
But the study found there were major benefits in the form of three massive infrastructure projects – the Sea-to-Sky Highway upgrade, which changed a dangerous, winding mountain road into a safer, faster highway; the construction of the Canada Line, which provided rapid transit to Vancouver International Airport and several communities on the route; and the Vancouver Convention Centre, which gave the city a large, modern conference venue overlooking the harbour.
Those projects, along with a flurry of smaller developments including new community centres, the Olympic Village in Whistler and the Richmond Olympic Oval, drove up the cost of the Games, but gave Whistler and Vancouver developments the cities might never have seen.
And those projects were largely paid for by the provincial and federal governments. The report states that for every $12 spent by Ottawa and B.C. on the three big projects, local taxpayers contributed only $1.
"Residents paid little in direct taxes to get great infrastructure … it is a good deal," said Prof. VanWynsberghe.
He said the findings show how local communities were able to use the Games to get funding from higher levels of government.
"The best way to think about this is in terms of leveraging … and what you are attempting to do is use the vehicle of the event to achieve other public policy objectives," he said. "Arguably the Sea-to-Sky Highway, the Canada Line, the Convention Centre, the community centres, those are the other public policy objectives that you are trying to achieve – and the Games provided the vehicle for doing that."
Prof. VanWynsberghe said one intangible social benefit was the impact the Games had on public attitudes about people with disabilities.
He said polling done before and after the Games showed that because of the high profile given to Paralympians in 2010, "People are more willing to consider hiring people with disabilities, people are more willing to consider athletes with disabilities true athletes … so that is a positive legacy."