Are you over the moon? CBC Radio host Mary Lou Finlay asked Steve Podborski.
It could have been 1980, just after Podborski won the Men’s World Cup Downhill Championship. But it was last Wednesday, and the question was how Podborski was feeling now that Vancouver had been selected to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
No doubt Podborski, a member of the Vancouver bid’s corporate board, was happy with the result. But, over the moon?
The question was, however, quite in line with the sense of elation that permeated the media last week over Vancouver’s selection.
“We have absolutely moved a mountain,” was the huge front-page quote in the National Post, beneath a half-page photo of two flag-draped B.C. women in a state of apparent euphoria.
All day, CBC interviewers seemed to be breathlessly asking people to describe how they felt the moment the bid result was announced, as if this were some earth-changing event. “It seemed like the world stood still,” was one response from an otherwise ordinary-sounding woman. (Presumably, the excitable type.)
One wonders if ordinary people would be moved to such apoplectic reactions if the media weren’t urging them on, hyping Vancouver’s successful bid as some kind of international verification of our worthiness as a nation, rather than the product of wheeling and dealing that would make Conservative Leader Peter McKay look like a stranger to a backroom deal.
Of course, if the media must whip up hysteria, better to do it over an Olympic bid than, say, sending the country to war in Iraq.
Still, with the media hoopla, it was easy to forget that hosting the Olympics isn’t some kind of transcendental experience that we should all feel compelled to rally behind. The benefits depend a lot on who you are.
People in the tourism and construction sector will benefit (some enough to justify serious euphoria), while poor people are likely to find the mean-spirited B.C. government of Gordon Campbell even stingier when the Olympic cost overruns start appearing.
Olympic promoters try to deny this division of spoils, suggesting everyone’s a winner — even presumably taxpayers outside the province who will contribute to the $820 million building and security costs (to be split between B.C. and the federal government.)
Olympics boosters insist the Games will make money, and they toss around big numbers like $10 billion in net economic benefits, 228,000 jobs and $2 billion in extra tax revenues. (That windfall could then perhaps be reinvested in Florida swampland, producing untold billions more for the B.C. economy.)
But do these numbers bear any resemblance to reality? David Green, an economist at the University of British Columbia, looked at the actual job-creation experience of the last three Winter Games held in North America — Lake Placid, Calgary and Salt Lake City — and concluded that B.C. can expect the equivalent of about 1,400 new jobs lasting seven years. This suggests the boosters’ numbers are high by about 226,600 jobs. But who’s counting?
In a study for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, former B.C. civil servant Marvin Shaffer used the province’s own cost-benefit analysis formula to calculate that the Games will end up as a net drain on the province’s coffers of $1.2 billion. If true, the repercussions are serious for B.C., which alone is on the hook for any cost overruns. B.C. has just reported a $3.2 billion deficit — the largest in the province’s history.
Of course, the Olympics are said to offer priceless psychic benefits — like introducing young Canadians to the Olympic ideal of athletic excellence.
But, judging from the past, the Games are just as likely to introduce young Canadians to concepts like doping, bribery, financial recklessness, backroom wheeling, dealing and manipulation. (It turns out that Vancouver won because European delegates wanted Canada to have the 2010 Winter Games so European cities would have a better shot at the 2012 Summer Games.)
The real downside of hosting the Olympics is simply that a great deal of public money and energy will be invested in creating things like facilities for bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitions.
It’s probably good for a city to have such facilities. But is it better to have them than to have, say, great universities, schools, libraries, parks, museums, hospitals?
With the Campbell government in the process of slashing B.C.’s public sector by 30 per cent — a campaign that will only intensify as deficits grow – it may well come down to this sort of choice.
Imagine if more than a billion dollars of public money were about to be spent on activities even more vital to people’s lives than bobsleigh, luge and skeleton.