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The Globe and Mail

Olympics no place for politicians to score points

As they gear up for their own Olympic sport - politicking at the Vancouver Winter Games - MPs of all stripes are aware that they are more likely to fall on their backs than land a gold-medal performance.

Politicians and strategists are working on the assumption the best-case scenario at the Olympics is getting a few seconds of face time on a prime-time broadcast.

The worst-case scenario is being seen to steal the spotlight from the athletes or saying something that will distract from the Games and not be easily forgotten.

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In that context, federal politicians are treading carefully, especially when it comes to getting taxpayer-funded tickets to high-profile sporting events. The goal for all parties is to be seen to support Canada's Olympians without causing a partisan fight.

The NDP quickly set the tone, saying that Leader Jack Layton is not planning to attend, that the party has rejected freebies, and that its main presence will be MP Don Davies going to a hockey game with a neighbour.

The Liberals are also planning to go soft. Leader Michael Ignatieff will use the special pass put at his disposal to be present for about three days at the start of the Games and again toward the end. But he will "not be running after the cameras," a party official said.

Mr. Ignatieff will also do everything to avoid creating the impression that he has "jumped the queue" or stepped on toes simply to be visible.

"All people will care about is whether Canada has won or lost," the Liberal official said.

In fact, Mr. Ignatieff will also use his time in British Columbia to meet candidates and party officials in low-key events outside of the sporting venues.

With the Bloc Québécois sending only a backbench MP toward the end of the two-week event that begins Feb. 12, the Conservatives will have most of the ice to themselves. That will force them to strike the right balance between supporting the athletes, ensuring that the Games are well-run, and getting the right amount of political exposure.

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The Conservative presence will be steady. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is planning to be at the opening and closing ceremonies, and will pay for any tickets out of his own pocket.

Sports Minister Gary Lunn will travel between Whistler and Vancouver from start to finish, while Heritage Minister James Moore will be at both sporting events and the Cultural Olympiad arts festival.

Over all, the government will use its presence at the Games to foster international trade, boost tourism and attract investments.

"The Games are about the athletes," said Mr. Moore's spokeswoman, Deirdra McCracken. "Obviously, there are dignitaries and CEOs of global companies who will be attending the Games that we hope to meet with, and there will be some political discussions, if you will, at the high levels."

Influence Communication, a company that monitors and analyzes media content around the world, said the Olympic Games will be one of the biggest stories of the year. But president Jean-François Dumas said the odds are low that politicians will achieve high levels of visibility by being in the stands.

"If their goal is to score brownie points, they aren't there for the right reasons," he said.

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Still, politics is hard to avoid with so many TV cameras around. The Liberals know they are unlikely to make gains at the Olympics - but they still hope that the Conservatives will take a hit for basking in the glory of others while Parliament is prorogued.

"When the Conservatives have their photo opportunities, the public will be thinking about this gold-plated, taxpayer-funded holiday that allows them to get seats that Canadians can't even purchase," said Liberal MP Joyce Murray of Vancouver.

Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said that Conservatives will be ready to deal with success and victories, but will face a challenge if things go awry.

"The potential for slip-ups is greatest if something unexpected occurs," he said.


Political presence

Amid the thousands of visitors and sports fanatics, a few federal politicians will attend events at the Vancouver Olympics.

  • Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to be at the opening and closing Ceremonies, and may attend other events.
  • Conservative senator and former skier Nancy Greene Raine will be a fixture at the competitions in Whistler as Canada's Olympic ambassador for the Games.
  • Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff will spend three days at the start and three days near the end of the event, and will attend the Feb. 12 opening ceremony.
  • NDP MP Don Davies will go to a hockey game with a neighbour.
  • Bloc Québécois MP Pascal-Pierre Paillé will attend a semi-final game in the men's hockey tournament, in addition to monitoring the status awarded to the French language at Olympic sites.
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