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Blame It on Olympic Fever

Suddenly the Games' big downside looks steep. My side tried to warn you, but there's still time to back out.

By Chris Shaw 24 May 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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When, nearly a year ago, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2010 Winter Games to Vancouver/Whistler, many citizens reacted with glee and satisfaction. After all, a lot of economic goodies were promised. The Bid Corporation and its boosters helped win the Vancouver plebiscite by stressing that the Olympics could be the engine to save British Columbia's struggling economy.  Those opposed were whiners and, if not enemies of B.C. exactly, against sports and progress in general.

The zeal of pro-Games supporters continued long after the victory in Prague, with constant proselytizing to "get on board and make it the best Olympics ever". 

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell assured that hosting the Games wouldn't cost Vancouver taxpayers "one cent".

Bid Corp CEO Jack Poole said "every penny would be accounted for". All aspects of the preparations for the Games would be open and accountable, including the search for a head for the new Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (OCOG), the successor organization to the Bid Corp.

The provincial and federal government promised mega-projects linked to jobs and growth.

And the "greenest" Games ever would come in on budget and on time while an admiring world readied itself to visit and invest in British Columbia.

These many months later, such promises have begun to tarnish.

Books still not fully open

The Bid Corp had promised to open their books to the public, but took over six months to do so.  The final release was a simplified version that failed to provide line item accounting for the close to $35 million, most of it public money, spent on  winning the bid.  We don't know, for example, any details of travel expenses for Bid Corp members or how much the various private sector contributors gave.  In their accounting practices, the Bid Corp came close to following in the footsteps of the earlier Bid Society which was dissolved without ever accounting for expenditures of public funds.

Meanwhile, the Host City Agreement between Vancouver and the IOC, withheld from public scrutiny during the plebiscite, shows that Vancouverites are on the hook for substantial costs.  The "not one cent" promised by Larry Campbell now risks becoming $138 million worth of cents.

Not so transparent

The search for the head of the OCOG finally culminated in February with the position going to John Furlong, the former president of the Bid Corp.  Besides having run B.C. summer and winter games, Furlong's experience consisted of being manager of the Arbutus Club, an upper crust enclave belonging to Caleb Chan, a member of the Bid Corp Board of Directors and owner of multiple properties along the Sea to Sky Highway.

The process by which Furlong was chosen remained shrouded in secrecy.  Reporters who tried to cover the selection committee deliberations were kicked out by hotel security on the orders of the OCOG.  The choice of Furlong led to a public spat with Dick Pound of the Canadian IOC.  Although the OCOG and Pound have since officially made up, the event highlighted the lack of transparency that Games' opponents had warned about.

Already, rising cost estimates

In the days leading to the Prague vote, the Bid Corp and the Liberal government made numerous guarantees concerning cost estimates associated with Olympic venues and various super projects, including the upgrade for the Sea to Sky Highway. In spite of this, early in 2004, Furlong and Poole advised that they might have to go back to government to ask for more funds.  Furlong now admits that construction costs for the SFU speed skating oval are currently 20 percent over budget and that if additional funding is not provided, certain projects will have to be curtailed.

B.C.'s Liberal government promptly told the OCOG that there would be no added funding, happily ignoring the fact that the official contract with the IOC guarantees that the province is liable for any and all costs.  Thus, less than a year into the process, the budget may already be blown. With six years still to go here, the cost overruns of this summer's upcoming Athens Olympics might be instructive: nearly $2 billion over budget and counting.

Tepid predictions of jobs and growth 

In fact, the overruns here were predictable since virtually all past Games have had the same problem. But will these exaggerated costs bring jobs and new growth?

Well, not necessarily, since B.C. lumber may not match IOC standards and possibly can't be used. And jobs can be out-sourced to the lowest bidders raising the prospect of foreign workers getting Olympic jobs promised to British Columbians.  In a rare convergence of opinion, the conservative Fraser Institute and the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives both noted that economic benefits from the Games were unlikely to materialize.

How green are our games?

Then there was the promise of how green the Games would be.  The provincial government is now in a major dispute with the city of West Vancouver about a small part of the Sea to Sky Highway.  The city wants the highway improvement near Horseshoe Bay to be a tunnel going under a sensitive environmental area at Eagle Ridge.  The Liberals, beginning to actually worry about escalating costs, are holding out for a cheaper four-lane highway over the top of the ridge, even if that means destroying a protected reserve.

And, of course, neither the OCOG nor the Liberals can explain how converting the nearly pristine Callaghan Valley near Whistler into a four-season resort to host the Nordic events is a "green" solution.  Also, conveniently forgotten is the fact that the Callaghan is unceded native land, not to mention part of a legal dispute between the province and resort developers.  Native protests about usurpation of the Callaghan and other areas are planned for this August and could brew up into a major confrontation in the years ahead.

The terrorism cost variable

How about security?  For this item, Vancouver's Bid came in at a curiously low $177 million with practically no explanation about how this figure was derived.  Athens is now estimating a security bill at well over a billion dollars, even without counting the massive contributions from NATO and police agencies from around the world.  Not only does the OCOG have to protect the Games in Vancouver, but must also protect Whistler and the 124-kilometer long area between the sites along the Sea to Sky Highway.  Does anyone in the OCOG think the threat of terrorism is going to abate before 2010? 

The various groups that came together to oppose bringing the Olympics to Vancouver raised these issues and more before July 2003. We warned of massive cost overruns paid by the taxpayer at all levels, inadequate security, loss of civil liberties, penalization of the disadvantaged, and extensive damage to the environment. Wherever the Games are hosted, the IOC does extremely well, as do local developers and the politicians they support.  But overall, rather than wealth, we argued, the Games bring debt.  

RAV back-off sets example

Last week, GVRD councilors surprised by voting down RAV, the proposed fast rail airport connector to Vancouver.  Like the Olympic bid, RAV would have enriched developers and special interests. But sometime in the last few months, a majority of the councilors decided they were being misled about the costs and benefits of the RAV, did the math, and walked away from it before it became inevitable.  It is not too late to walk away from the Olympic tar baby for the same reasons that RAV was rejected: It costs too much and will deliver too little. 

Wouldn't the IOC sue, then? Doubtful, unless if wants to make a huge political issue of being seen to force the games on a city. During the plebiscite, the Yes side and the Canadian IOC kept stressing that the city had signed contracts and could be sued if it did not go through with the Bid if awarded the Games. But the financial penalties were never made clear, and such penalties have never been assigned before. Even if a lawsuit were successful, the cost would surely be below the minimum $1.2 billion estimated by CCPA to be the deficit of the Games.

Could B.C. say no thanks to the Olympics? Denver did after being awarded them in 1970. Two years later, the city voted against hosting the winter Games. Concerns then (as now) focused on cost overruns and the environment. The IOC turned to Innsbruck to host only 12 years after its last Olympics.

Let's give the 2010 Winter Games back to the IOC. They will find other takers and we will be off the hook for a far more disastrous financial misstep, perhaps the worst in British Columbia's history.

Chris Shaw csshawlab@hotmail.com is a spokesperson for No Games 2010 and 2010 Watch
 [Tyee]

Read more: 2010 Olympics

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