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Sochi vs. Vancouver: Does either Olympic city really win?

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As the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi approaches, it is natural to compare the coming Olympics Games to those that were held just four years ago in Vancouver. The typical questions to be asked concern costs, environmental and social issues and security. These, along with Vancouver's post Games "legacy," are what the mainstream media tends to focus on, so the same will serve as a proper starting point for a somewhat deeper, perhaps jaundiced, comparison between the two Olympic circuses.

What are the financial aspects of the Games?

This aspect is easy, and not easy at the same time. The 2010 Games appeared to come out with a tab of about $6 billion; Sochi's are apparently well over $50 billion. The problem here is true numbers aren't known in either case. Different levels of government in Canada were adept at hiding costs by seconding them to other budgets, so the $6 billion is likely a lowball number. To be sure, the $50 plus billion of Sochi is almost certainly an underestimate as well.

So, two things can be concluded: (1) the Games are absurdly expensive for taxpayers regardless of which nation is holding them, and (2) in the context of Sochi, maybe Vancouver got a bargain of sorts, assuming -- incorrectly -- that the $6 billion was not needed for "trivial" things like health care or poverty remediation.

How large is the environmental damge?

This was huge in Vancouver/Whistler with CO2 emissions skyrocketing, enormous and precious forested areas destroyed (think of Eagleridge), but Sochi is clearly worse.

Huge numbers of roads were punched into wilderness areas, mining and resource extraction and resort development followed on the footsteps of the roads, to name just a few of the worst excesses. The latest stunt to reveal just how "ungreen" the Sochi Games actually are involves captured orcas to be displayed in an Olympic aquarium.

What about the social issues?

Displacement in Vancouver, lost opportunity costs, the list goes on. Vancouver's Games were largely developer-driven and designed to open up turf for various building schemes. In this, the Games largely succeeded, as we see almost daily in the post-Games period with the planned development of the Cambie corridor being a case in point.

Sochi comes with an even greater displacement of people for Olympic venues along with the overt suppression of the Circassian population. There is nothing particularly new in the latter, but the arrival of the Games certainly didn't make it better. Vancouver's Games, in contrast, provided ample lip service to First Nations aspirations and culture. The reality was somewhat less glowing, but as in many things in Canada, having a government say it is actually doing something about an issue often seems to fill the need to actually do it.

Are there actually 'security threats' or what?

In Vancouver, different levels of government spent roughly $1 billion to harass dissidents in spite of a well-established absence of any real physical, as opposed to political, threat to the Games.

Russia has a somewhat different issue: dissidents are already suppressed, but there really are folks who would like to make a statement about the overtly totalitarian and repressive nature of the Russian state. That they might make this statement with bombs is not that outlandish a thought.

So, which is worse: a notionally democratic state that really has no threats using vast resources to stifle dissent or a totalitarian state facing a real terrorist potential arising from its own repressive policies?

The Olympics are the Olympics are the Olympics

Then there are the things that never seem to change about the Games.

1. Olympic athlete mentality. Olympic athletes who attend the games despite the obvious human rights issues reported in Russia may come across as a remarkably self-centered group of narcissists, notwithstanding how hard they train and how dedicated to their sports they surely are.

It was one thing going to the Vancouver Games since those attending could always point to the warm fuzzy messages that the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) put out in abundance and claim that all issues, social or environmental, etc., were being addressed. Hence, the road was clear for them to focus on the "purity of sports" and their role in it.

In Sochi, however, that rationale is wearing mighty thin. Homophobic laws? No matter, it's all about sports and if we show up with a rainbow pin, all will be well.

Vancouver's "official" response to official Russian homophobia was to dispatch gay city councillor Tim Stevenson to Sochi to "discuss" a recent anti-gay law with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), an organization notorious for not caring a whole lot about human rights. It is worth remembering that the IOC did not cancel the 1936 Munich Games that were used as a propaganda ploy by the Nazis, nor those in Moscow following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

All of this leads one to ask the question: Just what would a regime have to do before an athlete wouldn't go to the Games? The answer for most athletes is likely to be this: nothing. All that really matters is me and my lust for a gold medal.

Just for once, I wish those going would simply admit it and not provide us with an endless stream of justifications. It is, and always has been, all about the athletes doing their thing on the taxpayer's dime and the hell with everyone and everything else. OK, I get it, thanks for being honest.

2. Rabid nationalism. The Olympics have been used repeatedly for raw political purposes and the Russian Olympics are not likely to be an exception. 

While it is true that Canada did observe an Olympic boycott against the 1980 Moscow Games because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan the previous year, this was a governmental policy decision which did not originate with either the Canadian Olympic Committee or the athletes. 

The Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian athletes have bought into the Olympics in Russia this time, seemingly ignoring the nature of the regime.

When we are told in Canada that we can "own the podium" and come home with more trinkets than other countries, it is important to recognize that the Olympics is not, by any means, "Olympism." Both were created by Pierre de Coubertin over 100 years ago, but the latter was meant to celebrate excellence in elite sport and the beauty of humans pushing physical and spiritual boundaries, rather than an actuarial medal count. With Olympism, we'd all cheer the Jamaican bobsled team and Eddie the Eagle of Calgary fame as much as our own athletes, not for winning, but for trying.

Those moments still happen, but they are now a distinct rarity in our national and media-driven medal obsession. We are not alone in this of course as most countries do it, too.

Whatever, it is not Olympism. Rather, the current medal chase stems from the same vulgar instinct that makes 14 year old boys compare their penis size. Patriotism, in all of its forms, is rarely pretty and it certainly is not in the spirit of Olympism.

3. National legacy. Sochi's Games could go south quite dramatically for a number of reasons. The costs of the Games alone will sink the region for years, less the profits to Vladamir Putin's pals who will have done very well. Either or both will make any attempt to find a positive legacy quite moot.

In Vancouver, what's left of "our Games?" Some infrastructure most Vancouverites, let alone most British Columbians, will never use (but helped pay for), and the lost opportunities of what $6 billion could have provided, but didn't.

What about the "spirit of the Games?" Well, we saw that spirit on display 15 months later at the Stanley Cup riot. So much for Vancouver becoming a world class city in anything besides price.

When the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup playoff to the Boston Bruins, the downtown core was almost instantly immersed in a full blown riot. Disgruntled -- often blatantly drunken -- fans torched cars and smashed and looted stores. The hooligans attacked terrified shopkeepers and others in the crowd. It took the riot squad hours to restore order. By the end of it, hundreds had been injured and millions of dollars in damage had been done.

The so-called "spirit" of the Games, so proudly hailed by VANOC and the city government after the hockey gold win, was thoroughly tarnished. Indeed, one might claim that the Olympic spirit was illusory in the first place and that the riot more accurately portrayed the reality of Vancouver's much hoped for "world class" status.

4. Finally, lording it over all, faux democratic state or blatant totalitarian one, is the IOC.

Costs to the host countries don't matter to them as long as they get their television revenues. Social, political and environmental issues? They don't seem to care as long as the Games run on time and make money. The IOC is quite astute in their analysis of the situation, in Vancouver, Sochi, as elsewhere: there is a sucker born every minute. And then it's all in their rear view mirror once the closing ceremonies are over, and hiyo, Silver and away, on to the next sucker…

In Vancouver, with four years of hindsight, the Games seem increasingly irrelevant. Those who loved them, remember the street parties and gold medal hockey final fondly. Those who hated them, or were indifferent, remember them bitterly, if at all. We still have poverty, some of the worst in Canada. The economy never got the promised boost, nor did tourism. So, tis back to where we were, just $6 billion lighter in the wallet with our social problems still not addressed.

But hey, never mind, liquefied natural gas is going to save the economy now. Of course, it is hard not to remember that the same government that brought us the Games said hosting the Olympics would save the economy too.

Maybe one problem here in B.C. is that we never seem to recognize the con men when they come calling?

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Photo: flickr/Kris Krug

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