The Olympic spectacle: Next stop, Vancouver

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Promising economic prosperity while downplaying cuts to social services, the Olympic Games will be a work-in-progress over the next four years as all three levels of government negotiate and barter on regional planning initiatives.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was 31 when he decided to revive the modern Olympic Games which had not been staged since about 400AD towards the end of the Roman era. He was a consummate rebel and an education reformer who had earlier refused to follow a military and political career.

His friend, Father Henri Martin Didon, who believed strongly in the discipline of sport as having both an educational and moral dimension gave him the Latin term, “Citius, Altius, Fortius” — “Faster, Higher, Stronger” which became the Olympic motto. It now seems like a dated artifact of modernity and progress. It was the First World War that led Coubertin to set up the International Olympic Committee offices in Lausanne, Switzerland where it remains today.

With the Olympics, we mark the passage of time and it serves as a cultural marker of geo-politics, spectacle, instant celebrity and Shakesperean plot lines — a full-on party with a global outlook. Guy Debord would be rolling in his grave. Many of us still remember the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo before the Balkans fell into madness or the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games by a few Western nations while 2008 will be modern China's coming-out party as a rising superpower.

Sport and entertainment, not religion, is after all the real opiate of the people. The Super Bowl recently had Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones as its half-time show. Its symbolic meaning was as if the Americans and the British were getting together again for a little party after “kicking ass” in Iraq. It was larger than life and symbolic of the great American game of football, a simulation of war if there ever was one, joined by a British Rock Band to give what seemed like a timeless and immortal show to pacify the masses.

In the world of Juergen Habermas and John Ralston Saul, it is as if the public sphere is more about spectacles that make us feel good than it is about the development of a conscious citizenry. The psychological operations people in the American military couldn't have planned it any better — why ask questions about a war in Iraq when a 62 year old Mick Jagger is swinging his hips and singing rock anthems like Start Me Up, Rough Justice and (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction?

Elias Canetti wrote an important work called Crowds and Power where he looked at the historical and psychological interplay of crowds. Susan Sontag once wrote that “Canetti dissolves politics into pathology, treating society as a mental activity — a barbaric one, of course — that must be decoded.” The madness of crowds and the euphoria they induce is perhaps emblematic of those old Roman coliseums where gladiators fought to the death for the masses. Today, the crowds scream while draped in flags.

And now as the international spectacle takes place in Turin with all its pomp, glory and circumstance, the commercial nature of the Olympic enterprise is as emblematic of consumer civilization and globalization as any multi-national corporation, even in its traditional Roman surroundings. The Olympics, once billed as “a four-yearly festival of the springtime of mankind,” could today more accurately be called an orgy of commercialization especially since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

The referendum in Vancouver over the 2010 Winter Olympic Games passed with 64 per cent support three years ago. But what lies behind every Games is the untold story of what happens to cities and communities as they make way for large and expensive infrastructure projects. The Olympic Games never pay for themselves since they require host cities to come up with the costs of infrastructure which in the case of Winter Olympics can be over $700 million CDN. The Vancouver 2010 Olympics recently announced that they would be going over $110 million CDN over budget. In Vancouver, there is the added dimension of aboriginal land claims.

Last April, thousands of Vancouverites gathered in GM Place to watch the unveiling of the Olympic logo in anticipation of the Games in 2010. It was an Inuit inukshuk, a symbol deeply rooted in Inuit culture that serves as a directional marker that signifies safety, hope and friendship. But under the stylized glow of the Olympics, it became cannon fodder for the cultural critics in Vancouver who felt it was part of the appropriation of First Nations culture without the attendant responsibility.

There are other signs that globalization has a commercial interest which can affect local communities. Last year, the 2010 Olympic Organizing Committee took Mosi Alvand to court to remove a logo on the sign over his Olympia Pizza restaurant that had the Olympic rings and a torch — a logo that he has had for over ten years, well before Vancouver even bid for the Games.

This was only one of a series of missteps that tells a broader story of the upcoming Olympic Games that will influence government planning priorities for years to come. Promising economic prosperity while downplaying cuts to social services, the Olympic Games will be a work-in-progress over the next four years as all three levels of government negotiate and barter on regional planning initiatives. Dubbed the “Sustainability Olympics,” organizers will be challenged to ensure that even words like sustainability do not become commodified. Vancouver City Council recently decided to cut a piece of affordable housing that had been promised as part of the Olympic Village in Southeast False Creek.

Real estate prices are continuing to rise and the cost of construction has shot up 50 per cent due to the shortage of skilled labour caused by all this rapid development under compressed timelines.

Labour unions have also sparred with the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee and the different levels of government on fair wage rates on upcoming Olympic construction projects.

Early on, the community-based watchdog group, the Impact of the Olympics on Community Coalition, raised concerns about housing, transportation and the environment. The Salt Lake City Olympics led to the eviction of dozens of low-income residents when rents tripled to make way for tourists. The Olympic Games in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seoul and already in Beijing (2008) were responsible for evicting or removing people from low-income neighbourhoods adjacent to the event.

In Vancouver's downtown peninsula, there are already signs of development pressures in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood that houses the greatest concentration of low-income residents. There is legitimate concern, that like the Expo 86 World's Fair held in Vancouver when hundreds were evicted, this community will see rents skyrocket and see stringent security requirements deeply impact its population to make way for tourists.

Massive changes to social assistance policy such as time limit restrictions on collecting welfare, more stringent requirements to obtain disability benefits and legislation such as the anti-panhandling Safe Streets Act have mobilized a community ridden with development pressures, real estate speculators and is home to the neighbourhood which bears the brunt of the government's decision to deinstitutionalize many people who were previously in mental health facilities. All these cuts to social services roughly add up to the costs of staging the Olympics for construction projects such as speedskating ovals and luge tracks.

During the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies, maybe the Rolling Stones will still be kicking around, Mick Jagger will be 66 and maybe Iran will be the next hotspot we need to get out of our collective heads.

What will we do then to pacify the masses?

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