Vancouver 2010: attack of the five-ring circus

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 17 | Feb. 11 – 24, 2010

The Olympics are coming to Canada, and with the spectacle comes the spotlight. While Olympic proponents hope that this will be Canada’s time to shine, many critics argue that the Olympics will only reveal a country tarnished by social problems and environmental mismanagement.

The Games generate a spotlight wherever they go, as it has become a widely acknowledged cliché that “the world is watching.” Social and political disputes are intensified as massive infrastructure projects displace residents, protestors and the homeless are pushed aside, and various lobbies and organizations use the event as an opportunity to get their issue onto the national stage. Animal-rights activists, First Nations groups, and environmentalists have all protested along Canada’s torch run.

In 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, protesting the occupation of Tibet became cool again. That’s what happens when the Games come to town, along with countless cameras and a news cycle that hungers for topical controversy. The spotlight becomes brightest just before the circus enters full swing, but often the worry is that the issues will be forgotten once the Games are finished.

“It’s a nice flash in the pan,” says Jim Elliott, the Regina chapter head of the Council of Canadians. “The circus comes to town, then everybody leaves, and the homeless in Vancouver are still homeless … The idea of spotlighting things on a temporal basis may be fine for the time that it’s here but how does that become part of the long-term strategy?”

Vancouver’s flash in the pan has revealed a number of shadows. Corporate sponsorship on a massive scale often provokes controversy, and this Olympics is no exception. Although Petro-Canada and Coca-Cola have been criticized for their involvement with fossil fuels and water table abuse, Royal Bank has been the main subject of most of the anti-corporate protests. As a major financier of Eastern Canada’s bloody seal hunt, it has been criticized by animal-rights groups such as PETA.

Royal Bank has also played a prominent role in the development and expansion of Alberta’s oil sands, says Elliott. He argues that the talk of a green and sustainable Olympics is an attempt at “greenwashing” Royal Bank’s image and concealing its other activities. “The aspect of the greenwashing that we’re concerned about is that they’re attempting to garner some benefit from the Olympics.” He argues that the oil sands have caused harm to vulnerable people, such as the Ojibwe aboriginal bands in Alberta; and environments, such as the forests of northern Saskatchewan, which receive unhealthy amounts of acid rain from Alberta’s emissions.

Elliott hopes that rather than attempting to garner positive public relations from sponsoring events like the Olympics, Royal Bank and other corporations may use their clout to make a real difference in the world. “Some corporations actually mandate as part of their corporate responsibility that ten per cent of the profits go to charity,” he says. The shareholders of the business annually decide where that money should go.

“With any type of entity or corporation, there is a reciprocal obligation or a responsibility … rather than necessarily just passing money down to the shareholders as dividends or revenues, could it be used for donations?” He imagines that Royal Bank would have “a lot more customers” if it used some of its revenue to donate, say, $1 billion to Haiti.

Unfortunately for Royal Bank, involvement with the Olympics has brought a unique set of problems and vicious opposition. Royal Bank locations in several cities have been vandalized in the past few years with the Olympics in mind. When asked what he thinks about these forms of protest, Elliott says that he disapproves of such tactics but can understand where that anger comes from. “We don’t talk about stuff, we don’t discuss things,” he says. “There are no natural venues to get that question out there.”

Homelessness has also been an increasingly serious issue in the lead-up to the Olympics, as the homeless population in Vancouver has skyrocketed and the city has taken dubious steps to handle the problem. Homeless people living within Olympic security zones will be removed by police during the Games. Although the Vancouver police have maintained that the homeless will be offered shelter or given help to go wherever they want, and only arrested if they refuse to leave the area, many Olympic critics suspect that the reality will not be so benign.

“They made it illegal to be homeless,” says Marc Spooner, an assistant professor at the U of R who specializes in educational psychology and has worked for years on issues of social justice and homelessness. “They can, if they feel it’s in your best interest, arrest you for being homeless … [They’re] criminalizing an activity that people are forced into.”

Spooner objects to the extravagant costs of the Olympics at a time when the homeless problem is worse than ever. “One of the slogans I like to go by is ‘Homes before Games’,” he says, referring to the popular Olympic protest slogan. “It [the Games] displaces a lot of our most poor, the most marginalized … They also cut a lot of programs out. If you’re spending $6 billion on something, that money comes from somewhere.”

The Games were originally projected to generate benefits and revenues to the city and province in the range of $10 billion, far outweighing the costs. However, Price Waterhouse Coopers recently released a study showing that the direct economic benefit will be more like $1 billion.

Elliott and Spooner both criticize how the Olympics have become an economic juggernaut divorced from the values of human excellence through sport. “You’ve got these $15,000 sleds with fancy this, and aerodynamic this, and chemically this,” says Elliott. “It’s much more about technical expertise than human excellence.” He would like to see the Olympics opened up to more people. “Instead of having 75 people running a marathon, you could have 7,500. You know, a hundred people from every country could come, instead of three.”

The corporatism and expense of today’s Olympics make it untenable when there are other national priorities, Spooner says. “It becomes this multinational, corporate-driven spectacle that I don’t think has a lot to do with the athleticism and more to do with big money. That’s $6 billion of taxpayer money … We could better spend our money, as a collective, on securing that people have food and shelter.

“I think we should scale the Olympics back to what its primary stance was, to have nations compete in a peaceful manner and to push athletes to the best that we can be … The pressure is so great on countries to win medals, you get into doping and who has the best equipment, with the best doctors, so it’s not really a level playing field.”

Spooner also accuses the Olympics of provoking a spirit of “uncritical nationalism” and “blind patriotism” that is unwarranted, given the scope of the problems we face. “If we’re that great, why do we have homeless people in a country as rich as ours?” The Olympics tends to stifle genuine political debate, he says, because critics are often accused of not supporting athletes. “Being a participant in democracy is to be a critical participant. We’ve got to critique and re-evaluate what we’re doing at all times.”

Ultimately, Elliott says, we have to seriously ask ourselves what we want from events like the Olympics. “The Olympics, in and of itself, I don’t think needs to be curtailed or stopped,” he says. “I think there’s still value to the achievement of physical and mental excellence … What are we trying to achieve? Is it to reduce obesity, is it to instil some strength and personal goals, to aspire to something?” The Olympics’ flash-in-the-pan character means that it’s difficult to capture enthusiasm and get an entire population active and healthy. “It’s here for three days, it’s gone, and what happens for the rest of the winter? The highlight is on the few individuals who are there, but how does that translate into ongoing recreations?”

The elusiveness of long-term strategies and solutions to endemic problems are serious issues, worth remembering as Canadians count medals this month. Every civilization needs its spectacles, but citizens have to judge whether or not they are getting more than mere bread and circuses from their leaders.

In any event, the issue is not with the spirit of the Olympics, nor with the unassailable virtue and fortitude of the athletes, but with the institution and its effects on societies. The Olympics is a multibillion-dollar franchise that seems to descend from the sky every other year; it magnifies and distorts what is already there, and often reveals host societies to themselves and the world from unappealing angles, like a trick mirror at a carnival. In the end, the problem is not in our circus, but in ourselves.

Holes in the native brand

Native communities across Canada have long been divided on the Olympic issue, with some offering support while others decry government ignorance, hypocrisy, or encroachment. Although the Vancouver Olympic theme centres on Canada’s Inuit, this recognition has brought a unique set of challenges.

The first and most obvious is location. Since the nearest Inuit settlement is roughly 1,000 kilometres away, many First Nations from the Vancouver area are irritated that their culture is being ignored.

Cultural sensitivity also takes a blow when the defining symbols of the event are misconstrued, as with Ilanaaq the Inuksuk. The name “Ilanaaq” means friendship, but it’s the second Inuit word that has led to trouble.

“Inuit never build inuksuit with head, legs and arms,” former Nunavut Commissioner Peter Irniq told CBC back in 2005. “These are not called inuksuit. These are called inunguat, imitation of man, imitation of a person.”

University of Regina professor Marc Spooner goes so far as to say that the First Nations aspect of the Olympics is nothing but “empty symbols” in a wholly commercialized event.

On the provincial stage, there have been struggles between the B.C. government and native groups in the interior of the province, over the construction or expansion of roads and ski resorts, while the homelessness issue has disproportionately impacted First Nations individuals living in urban centres. Accusations of systemic racism and “stolen land” will likely resonate in B.C. for years.

Taken together, these issues represent for many a black cloud within the silver lining of good wishes for native communities in the 2010 Olympics.

Full Feature Credits
Written by Alex Colgan and Peter Mills
Photos by Alex Colgan, Peter Mills, and Wikipedia

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