How the Olympics Came to Vancouver

December 1, 2009

Christmas eve, 1997. Gordon Campbell had suffered a humiliating defeat by the NDP that made people question if he should be the Liberal leader. Mayor Philip Owen of the Non-Partisan Association (rulers of Vancouver for over a decade) was mainly concerned with clamping down on crime. Gregor Robertson was working on a farm in Langley. Olympic Village developers Shahram and Peter Malek were building towers in Burnaby. No one had heard of John Furlong, and Jack Poole was in semi-retirement.   

At the Park Royal Hotel in West Van, Arthur Griffiths—the just-departed owner of the Grizzlies and GM Place—sat down for brunch with Tourism Vancouver’s top executives, Rick Antonson and Bruce MacMillan. Were they going to plunge ahead with an official bid for the 2010 Winter Games? MacMillan had first suggested the idea to Antonson in 1996, soon after Vancouver won the right to stage the 2001 World Figure Skating Championships. Ever since, Antonson and MacMillan had been convening groups of business leaders, holding informal talks with Mayor Owen, doing a preliminary feasibility study, and, in the fall of ’97, convincing Griffiths to be their corporate champion. And now, in late December, it was decision time: abort mission, or full speed ahead? The application had to be in by February.

“We were the latecomers,” remembers MacMillan. “It would be a major effort to get it all together.” There was less than a year until the Canadian Olympic Committee would announce its choice for bid city. Calgary had a successful Olympics behind it, and Quebec City had been planning and fundraising for months. Vancouver hadn’t raised a cent yet, and some people thought the whole thing was a bad idea.

MacMillan now works in Dallas as the CEO of Meeting Planners International; he’s an expert in the science of large events. Looking back, he thinks the city had all the right elements. Vancouver was full of people who loved sports: ex-Olympians like skier Steve Podborski, runners Doug and Diane Clement, and wrestler Greg Edgelow. And it had a sports-crazy volunteer by the name of John Furlong, who’d been CEO of the Arbutus Club and had a long history of involvement in amateur sports around the province. MacMillan had never met Furlong, but he was impressed with him even then: “He just had this passion that was unstoppable.” The city’s team also had cheery self-confidence. Some cities go into the bid process wanting to validate their sense of self, says MacMillan. It never works. Instead, the winners are cities that are self-assured. “We didn’t need someone else to tell us how great we are.” Plus, the Vancouver team had the sense that they were underdogs. “That makes you hungrier.”

The most important factor, though, is that the bid boosters had either learned from the mistakes of past bids or managed to avoid them. Enthusiastic as they were about the Olympics, the 2010 dreamers squashed any thoughts about bidding for the 2008 Summer Games, an idea floated by an earlier group that had aimed at making it a joint bid between Vancouver and Seattle, something the International Olympics Committee nixed because of border issues. The whiff of that failed effort was still hanging in the air, and Antonson and the others didn’t want any part of it. “We just felt it would be too onerous financially,” he says. “There would be community backlash and it would overwhelm the city.”

The 2010 bid team was also lucky with provincial support. That had not been the case in the early 1970s, when another Olympic bid (then a combined Vancouver-Garibaldi bid) had actually had two shots. When Denver bailed on the ’76 Games, organizers approached runner-up Vancouver. The ’76 bid team was working on putting its bid back in for the 1980 Games, but the NDP government of the day, headed by Dave Barrett, wasn’t interested: “If anybody wants an example of taxpayer’s money going up the Olympic flue,” said Barrett, referring to the Montreal Games of 1976, “take a look at Quebec.” The team abandoned both efforts.

Twenty years later, in the ’90s, the problem wasn’t a balky NDP government. The new edition of left-wingers had seen how popular Expo 86 was with the public, and the NDP leader of the day revelled in big projects. Premier Glen Clark, riding high, jumped on board the bid in March 1998 after Antonson and Griffiths paid him a visit. He gave the group $50,000.

Clark, now a senior executive in Jimmy Pattison’s corporate empire, says there wasn’t a question in his mind about supporting the bid. “It galvanizes everyone to host an event like this, and we thought we could use this as a catalyst for very serious investment.” Some members of his caucus weren’t enthusiastic, but he tried to sell them on the idea that hosting the Games would bring in money to make improvements in the Downtown Eastside and to finish the Millennium Line out to Vancouver’s West Side. He even went to Toronto to sell Vancouver to the Canadian Olympics Committee that November. “I made a pretty naked speech that Vancouver-Whistler had the best chance of winning the Games for Canada,” he recalls. That speech was key in securing the Canadian bid for Vancouver. “When we did the presentation,” recalls Tourism Vancouver’s Antonson, “the guy who put it over in the pitch was Glen Clark. He did a brilliant job.”

In December, Vancouver got the nod: the team had four years to prepare for international competition. As it turned out, the bid team’s timing was fortuitous. Within four months of Clark’s presentation, the premier was crippled politically. The RCMP raided his house over allegations about improper influence in a casino-licence application, and by the following August he had resigned. The province remained more or less paralyzed until the Liberals were elected in 2001.

Fittingly, The competition to host the Olympics requires many of the same qualities that an athletic career does: extensive training so you’re ready to jump at the right moment; a capacity to endure in the face of setbacks; and an extraordinary ability to work collaboratively. No one person can carry the bid from start to finish, and no one is ever completely in charge.

Runners and cyclists have bursts of energy and then fade, letting someone else surge past. Marion Lay, an advocate for women in sport and a former Olympian, picked up the torch from Arthur Griffiths when he bowed out in 2000. Then, when Gordon Campbell got elected, he convinced his old ally Jack Poole to steer the bid. On the city front, the right-wing Non-Partisan Association council was originally reluctant to support the initiative. They had just been through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting the previous November, an extravaganza of protests, tear gas, and expensive security bills. By February, when they were asked for their support, they still hadn’t recovered. They insisted they weren’t going to shell out a penny and that the provincial government had to guarantee everything; then, on that basis, they grudgingly supported the idea.

After their initial reluctance, Philip Owen and city manager Judy Rogers threw themselves into planning—so enthusiastically that the city would come under criticism years later for its lavish investment in Olympics-related  parks, entertainment, and general party prep. The next mayor, Larry Campbell, scared all the Olympics boosters when he was elected in 2002 because he’d promised his brand-new political colleagues, the left-wing Coalition of Progressive Electors, that he’d hold a referendum on whether Vancouver should participate.

Campbell campaigned for the Yes side, along with the Downtown Eastside champion Jim Green, and voters turned out in the thousands to support the bid, arguably giving Vancouver an edge over Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, in the international bidding.

And of course in the home stretch, when it looked like Vancouver’s major contribution to the Games, the Athletes Village, was in trouble, it was the new city manager, Penny Ballem, who wrestled it into shape.

Almost 80,000 volunteers, undeterred by the controversies, applied to help out, either at official sites or in their home cities. Meanwhile, with increasing vociferousness, the critics and the scrutinizers made the case that the Games represented a misuse of taxpayers’ money. (See sidebar, page 42.) There’s also been a stadium’s worth of general-purpose doubters. Hardly a week has passed when a crash or a landslide on the Sea to Sky Highway, a power outage downtown, a heavy snowfall, or a public-relations glitch hasn’t had people screaming into megaphones that the city clearly was not and is not prepared for the Olympics.

The whole process has forced a learning experience on us. Not just about true costs and unfulfilled promises—although these too have come as a surprise to many—but also about the ramifications of life in the city during the Games themselves. You mean we won’t be able to drive wherever we want? It won’t necessarily be good for business? We might be told what we can and can’t do?

  The Olympics have always been a mutating phenomenon. They started as sideshows to the World’s Fairs that emerged in the late 19th century as vehicles for cities to market themselves. Berlin in 1936 introduced the concept of the Games as a vehicle for promoting extreme nationalism, to a repellent degree. Countries have used them ever since to show that they’ve come of age or joined the club. (See sidebar, page 40.) Ever since Los Angeles (1984) and Calgary (1998) sold television rights for $225 million and $309 million, respectively, cities have competed ever more intensely to get the Games, spending increasing sums on not just the Games themselves but on their bids. As many a cultural critic has noted, cities in the modern economy need to market themselves in a way that industrial Detroit or Torino never had to, if they’re going to attract finicky knowledge workers and mobile capital.

The money to be made from private sponsorships was what Philip Owen heard about most often when he went to the IOC’s palatial headquarters in the hills outside Lausanne, Switzerland, in 2001. Owen, who was there with representatives from 75 cities thinking of bidding, heard repeatedly about Los Angeles and its success. He got the message: “The Olympics are successful and have been since LA, so we can do it.” And he liked the idea of the legacies—the rinks and community centres—that the city could be left with.

For most observers, the Games fall somewhere between feel-good global Nirvana and the corporate exercise of maximizing profits for a select few developers and suppliers. For someone like Andree Janyk, however, they’re about sports, young people, and the drive to excel. Janyk herself competed to be on the Canadian ski team in Grenoble in 1968. Her children, Britt and Michael, will be competing in February. And her father, Peter Vajda, was part of the group back in the 1960s that tried to bring the first Olympics to a little backwoods place called Garibaldi. Vajda linked up with other Vancouverites who’d been at the Squaw Valley Games in California in 1960. When they came back to B.C., they looked around carefully. Whistler didn’t exist. The only way to get to Garibaldi was via a bush track running through the mountains from Harrison Lake, or by taking a ferry up to Squamish and a rough road from there.

It was a simpler time—less corporate, no doubt—but the desire to have the Games was not, even then, purely about the thrill of competition or making the city feel good about itself. If Vancouver could somehow pull off a successful bid, then the provincial government would come in and help. Then the world would come in and help. And then they’d have a great ski resort close to home and wouldn’t have to go to Sun Valley or Europe anymore. Call it enlightened self-interest. None of them took the bid idea too seriously back then. But they went ahead with it anyway, thinking, hey, even if we don’t get it, we can at least dream about it. And—who knows?—some day it might even happen.

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