This Was an Olympics of the Streets

It was at Vancouver's ground zero where protests urged change, police behaved, and throngs celebrated.

By Steve Burgess 1 Mar 2010 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture, Olympian and otherwise, for The Tyee.

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Photo courtesy of jritch77 from The Tyee's Flickr photo pool.

The Vancouver Olympic experience -- better or worse than expected?

There were plenty of worst-case scenarios. Culinary tourists might have deluged local chefs with requests for stir-fried Mika the Sea Bear or Ginger Quatchi. Supplies of endangered Muk Muk marmot meat would have been out by day three.

A skier might have been blinded by falling cherry blossoms.

The IOC might have noticed that the Star-Spangled Banner has the same colours as the Pepsi logo and cancelled the big hockey game.

And of course Ryan Kesler might have scored in overtime, harshing the buzz and making plate glass companies the biggest Olympic winners of all.

But Sid the Kid saved the day -- not to mention countless downtown windows. Even the IOC is surely thrilled that in today's climactic hockey match, the red-and-white Team Coke defeated the evil Pepsi crew. Just like they planned.

Sorting through a mixed bag

Now that it's done, all but the most partisan in the pro- and anti- camps would agree that the Vancouver 2010 Olympics have been a mixed bag. Somewhere between Pravda and the VANOC press releases lies a fair assessment. Some general observations:

It was the Olympics of the streets. The narrative that was building in early media reports -- a tale of tragedy followed by comic screw-ups -- got swamped by the massive grassroots buy-in that was evident every day around the epicenter of Robson Court. Add to that the mysteriously long queues for even the crappiest pavilions and the eternal willingness of the idle to jump up and down behind TV reporters, and you were seeing solid evidence of the public verdict on the 2010 Olympic Games.

Ah, the crowds. Another mixed bag. I love those geniuses who stood on camera, waving and whooping during news reports of Portuguese mudslides. And if you believe the World Trade Center towers were brought down by the controlled demolition of nano-engineered thermitic material, or that God created dinosaur fossils the same week he created the Earth, this was probably a good week for you.

But away from the TV cameras and pamphleteers, the crowd scenes offered lovely serendipitous moments. My favourite: the MEI marching band from Abbotsford, running around giving guerrilla performances downtown. Never mind later bar hours -- why can't we have marching bands every weekend?

Away from the madding mobs

The mobs were certainly localized. Vancouver streets were either teeming or deserted, and the difference was often a single block. To be on Robson or Granville with an actual errand to run was to discover what life must be like for Oprah or Robert Pattinson, chronically prevented from living normally by an oppressive public. But unlike the Brangelinas of the world, we needed no private jet to escape the throng. Gastown was only modestly busy, and Commercial Drive was unaffected; Kitsilano was quiet; even lower Robson and Denman were peaceful.

The easy escapes made life bearable for many of us, but a major disappointment for merchants. And it raises questions about the long-term boost to tourism. A mid-Olympic bike ride through our civic jewel, Stanley Park, was as quiet as any typical Tuesday -- suggesting that our guests were, on the whole, a remarkably unadventurous lot. Most, it seemed, were here for the Olympic experience instead of the Vancouver one.

Even so, the impressions left over will likely be overwhelmingly positive, and the TV audience saw plenty of lovely sun-kissed vistas. In fact, the weather, so often described as a drawback of these Games, certainly played to the long-term vision of tourism boosters. For every inconvenienced skier there was a horde of visitors outside, enjoying our warmest February ever.

The prison fence around the Olympic cauldron was one of the clumsiest of many PR fiascos. But it had a silver lining, with no pun intended. Keeping the crowds back disguised the butt-ugly reality of that contraption. It looks like the duct-tape work for an as-yet unfinished building, or a science fair model of the lunar landing module. Maybe they'll make it into a planter.

Police kept their cool

In the end, the death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili stands out as the true scandal of the Games. Also shameful, though less serious: day two's display of masked street thuggery at The Bay. Whether the first incident will have any lasting consequences is debatable. But the second has surely had an effect already. If they accomplished nothing else, the masked Bay bandits reminded Vancouverites what a good police force is there for.

Who would ever have believed that one result of these Olympics would be that our beleaguered cops, beset by scandal and accusations of excessive force, would find their public image rehabilitated and their officers embraced by a public grateful for their tactful behaviour? The police were cool. A typical example: soon after the gold medal hockey game, guys were hanging from trees at Robson and Burrard. A cop beckoned them down and, when they touched ground, offered them all high-fives.

The Olympic Resistance Network spoke of police violence, but the public saw it differently. Day two's mini-riot turned into a PR rout, and suddenly the Vancouver Police have given themselves a chance to start fresh.

So, to the tune of Nick Lowe's "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass," we now present the gold medal for unintended consequences. Black mask formal.

What were your impressions of the Olympics? Please contribute your view by posting a comment below.  [Tyee]

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