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Bringing the Olympics back to Vancouver might be cheaper and easier to do than last time, former organizers say – but the city has to answer vital questions about the environment, Indigenous rights and housing first

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Torchbearers surrond the lit Olympic flames at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games on Feb. 12, 2010. The former head of the city's Olympic organizing committee suggested it try again to play host to the Games in 2030.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Madeleine Orr is a researcher in the faculty of management at UBC Okanagan and is the founder of the Sport Ecology Group. Aileen McManamon is the founder of 5T Sports Group, global advisers in sustainable sports. She has worked two Olympic Games and many World Cup events.

After a year’s delay owing to the pandemic, the Summer Olympics begin in Tokyo next week. The Games, which will take place during a just-declared state of emergency, and are proceeding without spectators, will be unlike any other in history.

But if you haven’t got your fix of medal ceremonies by the end of the summer, you only have to wait six months – the 2022 Winter Olympics are set to take place in Beijing next February. It has been just 14 years since the Chinese capital hosted the Summer Games, evidence that a city doesn’t have to wait a generation or more, as has traditionally been the case, for a chance to host again.

In February of last year, as Vancouver celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, John Furlong, the former chief executive officer of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, floated the idea of a 2030 bid.

Emphasizing the city’s existing winter sports infrastructure and hosting experience, Mr. Furlong suggested a 2030 Games would be cheaper than in 2010. Within days, private interests committed more than $100,000 to support a bid and two separate groups formed to bring it to life. A city councillor put forward a motion to explore a bid and the sports hosting manager was directed to research and report back to council.

At that point, as the COVID-19 pandemic was arriving, few people took notice.

On March 31 of this year, the report was tabled with council’s finance and services committee. An epic three-hour council debate ensued over what we now know and don’t know about the 2010 Games, and the context of hosting another Games amid conflating social, economic and climate crises.

The question of whether Vancouver could accommodate another Games is one thing. With state-of-the-art facilities, know-how and a strong private sector ready to support the project, it should be feasible.

The more important question is whether the city and region should bid.

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Memorable moments from 2010: At top, fans cheer after Sidney Crosby's gold-medal-winning goal at the men's hockey final; at bottom left, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir hold their gold medals for ice dance free dance; at bottom right, gold and silver medals for two-woman bobsleigh go to the Canadian teams of Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, left, and Helen Upperton and Shelley-Ann Brown, right.Fred Lum and John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The 2010 Games were widely considered a success. Vancouver benefited from new sports facilities and modest new housing, and the event accelerated the building of planned transportation infrastructure.

Another oft-lauded outcome of 2010 was the inclusion of First Nations in the event and the elevation of Paralympic Games visibility through increased television coverage. The Games showcased sustainability at a time when it was aspirational but underprioritized, earning a bronze medal from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Metro Vancouver – a region with a population of just under 1.9 million in 1998 when the 2010 bid was launched – had its shining moment, establishing itself as a global city.

That’s not to say there weren’t issues. The development of the Athletes’ Villages in Vancouver and Whistler were initially welcomed as much-needed housing supply, and Vancouver’s Olympic Village was especially well-located, creating a new, vibrant and walkable neighbourhood.

But the housing stock needed – and promised – was not the housing stock delivered. The Olympic Village fiscal crises forced a rollback from 700 affordable housing units to 126, as the city bailed out the insolvent developer. In an even crueller turn, the residents of those units were driven out in 2013.

The Games are often cited as an exacerbating factor in Vancouver’s overheated real estate market, as the world showed up – buying second homes, especially condos. But median incomes have not risen since 2010, and the housing crisis has worsened. In response, Vancouver adopted short-term rental regulations and an Empty Homes Tax to combat the stresses of investor-owned real estate. The city has also laid out strategies to address health and homelessness concerns. In their March 31 deliberations, city councillors cited alignment – or misalignment – with these strategies as a key concern for a 2030 event.

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An Olympic Village condo complex is seen on Vancouver's False Creek in 2019.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

One of the potential benefits cited by bid proponents is to jump-start the province’s tourism sector. Several Vancouver councillors cited concerns that hotel owners have left workers behind in the pandemic, so the politicians would like to see some guarantee of gains from a future Games translate directly to ground-level staff and not simply benefit corporate chains.

For example, if Airbnb is an Olympic partner, it should work to ensure local homeowners needing side income, rather than real estate investors, are the beneficiaries of event-related revenue and spending by tourists.

Vancouver is also a city of reconciliation for Indigenous peoples, meaning a key priority must be to address the disproportionate effect of intergenerational cycles of poverty, trauma and homelessness among its Indigenous urban population.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission requires all publicly funded entities to consider reparations, reconciliation, inclusion and finding solutions in partnership with First Nations. While there is no clear direction from Sport Canada, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee on what this looks like in the sports sector, reconciliation must be integral to a 2030 effort.

Any future bid must consult these significant, interlocking and in-progress plans prior to approaching the drawing board to design an encore turn at hosting.

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Security cameras surround a temporary barrier at the Richmond Olympic Oval in January, 2010. Security costs at the Vancouver Games were five times over budget.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Games always overrun the bid budgets. Research from the University of Oxford suggests an average overspend of 156 per cent. Vancouver 2010 was not an exception: One line item alone – security costs – came in five times over budget at a whopping $1-billion. We don’t yet know the full financial story of 2010, as final costs will not be released until 2025.

In his most recent speech to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Mr. Furlong suggested a 2030 Games “would be funded entirely by the private sector.”

In 2010, the city spent $554.3-million on infrastructure and operations, and that didn’t include the $1-billion the city spent on construction of the Olympic Village after New York financiers bailed out of the project. The Games also received a total of $187.8-million in funding from the B.C. and federal governments, a large sum to replace.

Only two Olympics have adopted the purely private model: the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games, which pioneered the big-sponsorship model of hosting, and the coming 2028 Los Angeles Games.

However, the IOC requires government guarantees to cover any cost overruns, so taxpayers are not necessarily protected. LA28 organizers have already revised the budget from US$6.2-billion (in 2024 dollars) to US$6.9-billion, meaning the city may be liable for US$700-million, unless private partners increase contributions.

Vancouver’s $1-billion Olympic security mishap in 2010 may still be too fresh in memory for a 2030 Games to attain that kind of guarantee at the city and regional level.

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At a 2010 event in Vancouver, artist Calvin Hunt explains the meaning behind his designs on a giant Coke bottle. Coca-Cola, an Olympic sponsor, had several Indigenous artists produce the bottles.Simon Hayter/The Globe and Mail

It will also be important to monitor sponsorship spending trends and corporate responses to the pandemic. In 2010, domestic corporate sponsors paid $730-million (cash and in-kind).

But global sponsorship spending is down 37 per cent from prepandemic levels. Of the 16 National Partners and Official Supporters from 2010, at least seven are under serious financial or industry stress.

Last year, Airbnb announced it suspended all marketing activity to save US$800-million. In March, 2021, Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of the vacation rental giant, told CNBC, “We are never going to go back to spending the same amount of money on marketing as a percentage of revenue as we did in 2019.” Coca-Cola has similarly frozen or redirected advertising spending for 2021.

Recovering from the pandemic is a bigger priority for the corporate sector in general right now.

The International Olympic Committee contributed $659-million to the Vancouver Games in 2010, but the organization’s financial health in 2030 may not accommodate such significant contribution. The IOC’s expenses for this summer’s Tokyo Games are skyrocketing, owing to delay and the absence of fans, and the organization’s US$925-million contribution to the Milan-Cortina Winter Games in 2026 is astonishingly high.

Another source of income is ticket sales, which netted $269-million in 2010. Tokyo is issuing refunds for ticket revenue. While a pandemic in 2030 is unlikely, we can’t ignore the possibility of future crises having an impact on the Games.

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A protester against an Olympic-related highway construction project at West Vancouver's Eagle Bluffs sits in his chair as police read out a court injunction in 2006.Chuck Stoody/The Canadian Press

In their current format, Olympic Games have a massively negative environmental impact. Environmental advocacy groups have protested nearly every Olympics since the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., with little success.

In 2001, the IOC added environment as the third pillar of the Olympic Agenda 2020 and began setting increasingly stringent expectations for host cities’ sustainability efforts. But improvements have been slow. In 2010, compliance and performance were voluntary.

In announcing it will deliver a “climate positive games,” Paris 2024 set a new bar. The IOC is now mandating that future hosts meet similarly ambitious climate objectives, starting with the 2030 winter event. Given water stresses and aggressive carbon reduction plans globally, a 2030 Games anywhere, but especially in B.C., will require exceptionally climate-forward planning to clear that bar.

Vancouver has committed to a 50-per-cent reduction target in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and to be net-zero by 2050. It has shifted from the aspirational 2010-era Greenest City Action Plan to a detailed Climate Emergency Action Plan. British Columbia has also made its Climate Change Accountability Act more stringent, and Canada has upped its GHG reduction goal to the 40-per-cent to 45-per-cent range by 2030. There is little room for any actor to run counter to these multilevel government commitments.

Sponsors are also under the microscope and publicly disclosing emissions and sustainability actions to meet the expectations of investors, employees, consumers and, increasingly, regulators. The climate agenda is marching forward with broad popular support.

We must also consider weather trends. In 2010, ski events at Cypress Mountain were delayed because of poor conditions, with snow ultimately being trucked in from the B.C. Interior.

Projecting to 2030 and its legacy period (2030 to 2050, give or take a few years), research led by Dr. Daniel Scott at the University of Waterloo indicates snow conditions will worsen by 2050 with unchanged emissions levels. Unless emissions are curbed dramatically – and not just in B.C., but globally – it’s unlikely the region will have enough snow to warrant continued investments in winter sports tourism.

The bidding process is different now than it was for 2010. In a new “open dialogue” model, the IOC is engaging early with prospective bid cities. Before Vancouver can begin that process, however, the real numbers from 2010 will be needed.

According to the final report from the Vancouver Organizing Committee, the 2010 Games broke even. But a 2030 Games must yield social and environmental returns on investment, as well as a financial one. If Vancouver were to host again, the Games must be built to serve the city, not the reverse.

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Fireworks erupt above BC Place stadium at the closing ceremony for the 2010 Olympics.Chris Helgren/Reuters

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