Vancouver Prepares for 2010 Winter Games

"The hockey players are coming to Vancouver," said Evan Ince, who is three and was a bit overwhelmed last week. Celebration whirled around him at Vancouver's General Motors Place arena in the wild moments after the International Olympic Committee voted to stage the 2010 Winter Games in little Evan's backyard.

"The hockey players are coming to Vancouver," said Evan Ince, who is three and was a bit overwhelmed last week. Celebration whirled around him at Vancouver's General Motors Place arena in the wild moments after the International Olympic Committee voted to stage the 2010 Winter Games in little Evan's backyard. If he doesn't quite know what hit him, he's not alone. Vancouver, having built its reputation on the denial of winter, may never be the same.

Evan's mother, Jane Ince, was a Vancouverite living in Los Angeles during the 1984 Summer Games. "It was a fabulous experience, wonderful for the community and the culture," she says. "It's not something you can put into words, you have to live through it. And you can't convince someone until they live through it."

It was a big week for the Inces of North Vancouver. On Canada Day, Evan's father, Stuart, became a Canadian citizen, 12 years after moving from England. On bid day, dad wore his new, red hockey jersey with INCE 03 on the back, to commemorate the year of his citizenship. Evan will be nine when the Games are held. His parents say they're excited that the Olympic experience will grow along with him. Stuart, a partner in a Vancouver advertising agency, expects the city will grow some, too. "There's going to be a big boost for the economy," he says. "We can only go up from here."

A new outlook may not be a bad thing. British Columbia has been beaten up some, both economically and spiritually, in the past few years, hit by the softwood lumber dispute with the U.S., weak economic growth and the drop in tourism caused by the war in Iraq and the SARS health scare. "We need something to pull us out of this," Vancouver developer Jack Poole - the bid corporation's astute $1-a-year chairman and CEO - said in an interview before departing for Prague. "If we didn't have this project we'd need to invent something to replace it."

Greater Vancouver, for all its laid-back Lotus Land image, has grown increasingly timid and pinched. It lost, in recent years, its professional basketball team, the Grizzlies, its Triple A baseball team, the Canadians, and its stop on the pro golf circuit, the Air Canada Championship. In all too typical fashion, this year's Canada Day fireworks were cancelled. The reason: they were too popular, creating fears of crowd-control problems. "What a pathetic little village we live in," fumed one of many appalled letter writers to the Vancouver Sun. At General Motors Place on July 2, Lisa Richardson, 23, a recent University of British Columbia graduate who plans a career in event management, looked to the Olympics to deliver a needed jolt of community spirit. The Canada Day celebrations "sucked," she said. "No fireworks."

The Olympic decision will spark a near seven-year flurry of activity in Vancouver and in Whistler, where most of the skiing and sliding events will be held. This includes more than $620 million in Olympic venue construction projects. In Vancouver: a curling centre, a hockey arena at UBC, a speed-skating oval at Simon Fraser University, and an athletes' village at False Creek. In Whistler: a Nordic centre and likely an athletes' village (to be used later for Whistler employee housing) in the Callaghan Valley south of the resort, and a centre for bobsled, skeleton and luge. Add expanded convention centres in Vancouver and Whistler, the $600-million upgrade of the Sea-to-Sky Highway, and likely a rapid transit link from Vancouver International Airport to downtown, and the capital costs soar into the billions.

To pay for this, plus an estimated Games operating cost of $1.3 billion, the federal and provincial governments are committed to giving $400 million each. Hundreds of millions more will come from broadcast revenue, sponsorships, ticket sales and the voodoo science of economic spinoffs. Consultants' reports for the B.C. government estimate that the Games, and the expanded convention centre, will generate between $6.1 billion and $10.7 billion, create the equivalent of 126,000 to 244,000 full-time jobs, and result in tax revenues of $1.4 billion to $2.6 billion. The awesome scope and unsettling wiggle-room of expense and revenue projections offer a juicy target for critics.

It took but a few hours after the bid win for the first protest tent village, Homes Not Games, to spring up. Expect many more - they're a Vancouver tradition. Both the Green party and the No Games 2010 Coalition have pledged to root out overspending, scandal and potential conflict of interest at every turn. No Games spokesman Chris Shaw, a Los Angeles-born neuroscientist and associate professor at UBC, became a Canadian citizen in 1990. He took to heart his citizenship judge's admonition that he get "involved in the issues of the day."

Shaw has been threatened because of his opposition to the Games, but he considers himself a defender of the fiscal and physical integrity of a province and city he loves. Pro-Olympic talk of creating a world-class city baffles him. "What is the impact of an increased population on the quality of life for people who are already here?" he asks. "Do we want to look like Manhattan? I don't think so." He intends to use the years leading up to the Games to "pull back the curtain" on the tiny elite he says will operate and profit from the event. "I honestly think this is going to be the most scandal-ridden Games ever."

Yet throughout the Lower Mainland last week there seemed far more anticipation than dread. Many are already crediting the Games for a recent, almost unnatural, harmony between the provincial and federal governments, after decades of confrontation. Yes, the goodwill is greased by the westward flow of federal dollars, but the bid quest, under Poole, was also a far-reaching exercise in consultation. Its directing board included a range of interests, from federal appointees to First Nations representatives to residents of the blighted Downtown Eastside.

For Jim Green, an outspoken activist and Vancouver councillor, it was this inclusivity that turned him from Olympic skeptic to advocate. He predicts nothing less than a new Vancouver will be born of these Olympics. "We are really and truly a world within a city, with every possible background," he said as he soaked in the post-bid pandemonium on the arena floor. "Now is the time to support, now is the time to come onside. It doesn't do any good to run behind the parade and try to kick up dust."

What would this new Vancouver look like? On some bid committee illustrations given to the IOC, it chills peacefully under a rare white blanket of snow, a shameless bit of artistic licence. It's hard to think of Vancouver as a winter city - even against a backdrop of snow-tipped mountains, even though every stretch limo carries a ski rack, even when the SeaBus is packed with snowboarders headed across Burrard Inlet to one of three North Shore ski mountains. Winter is for lesser folk. People grow palm trees in Vancouver, just to bug their relatives in Saskatchewan.

Snow is Whistler's stock in trade. The resort town was pumped with common purpose and ready to party months before the bid announcement. Vancouver is a different climate altogether: green and wet and very fractious.

Last week, though, all things seemed possible, even the kind of spiritual transformation from which Olympic cities grow. Expect fireworks in the forecast between now and 2010. If some occur on Canada Day, so much the better.

Maclean's July 14, 2003