My Olympic Conversion

I voted no during the referendum on whether or not Vancouver should host the 2010 Olympics. So did most of my circle of friends and colleagues. I’d read too much about the detrimental effects of the games, the skyrocketing costs, the displaced people. Sixty-four percent of our citizens were in favour of the Olympic Bid however, with voter turnout at fifty percent. And the rest is history now. It is one year after the Olympics and we are all reviewing those seventeen days. Each of us has our own stories and experience of the Olympic period. Here’s mine.

In November 2009, I was contracted by the City of Richmond to help design a waste management system for their key celebration area, the O Zone, as it was called. Ironic, given that I was one of the non-believers, to find myself working on the inside. But I can see now that getting the job was the start of my conversion.

The environmental engineering department was keen to achieve the eighty-five percent diversion rate set out by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC). There were several different city departments, the Richmond Olympic Business Office, an event management company and sub-contractors who had been working together for years when I was parachuted in at the 11th hour. Needless to say systems were already pretty much in place. Still we accomplished a lot in a very short time frame. And the dedication and effort put in by the Richmond staff was laudable. In the end, we achieved forty-five percent diversion, the same as VANOC.

On Tuesday, February 9th, the day the torch was to arrive in Richmond, I went to the site to see our system at work. It was the dry run before the games opened on the 12th. I did the rounds, checking out our recycling stations, making sure the signage was in place that would instruct people what to put where. Chatting with the high school student volunteers with their bright green vests (we had 200 of them!) and touching base with the food vendors to make sure they knew the drill. Wanted to make sure all that cooking grease was recycled.

As I stood there that evening, watching the crowd stream in, I looked around and saw the giant TV screens, the huge corporate logos, circus performers on stilts and other costumed entertainers, the blue-coated volunteers handing out flags and pins, families, couples, grandparents. I suddenly started humming the theme song from Expo ’86, “Something’s happening, something’s happening here.” I felt like I was in another city, New York or London. It felt so international. The world was here.

Night came on, and I began to feel hemmed in by the crowd. I’m not big on crowds, and because my work there was really done, I decided to leave before the torch arrived. I didn’t really understand the torch relay anyways. What was so exciting about a glorified flashlight? Still, I paused and asked myself if I would regret it. After all, this was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. Nah, if it was really meant to be, I would get another chance, I thought. So I left, got on the new Canada Line SkyTrain to head home. On the train, I met a woman from Holland who was working with the Chinese team. The car was full of international visitors, some of them part of team crews, some of them just guests. We all pressed our noses against the window to see if we could spot the torch relay coming down the street. We cheered when we spotted them, and chatted happily all the way back into Vancouver.

Photo by Carolyn Ali, Georgia Straight

Two nights later, I was sitting at home watching the six o’clock news. I normally watch Global, but decided to flip over to CTV, the Olympic station to see what was going on. It was the night before opening day and the torch was to arrive at David Lam Park. Ken Lyotier would be carrying it in; he’s one of our local heroes, a downtown eastside champion and founder of United We Can. I thought it would be great to see him. Just as I turned the channel, the announcer said, “The torch is just coming down MacDonald street, turning on to 4th Avenue now.” That was about three blocks from my house! So out I ran, onto 4th Avenue, lept onto a wall in front of an apartment building. The streets were jammed with people, lining both sides of 4th Avenue as far as far as I could see. I was surrounded by my neighbours. There was such excitement in the air. A few minutes later, the procession arrived, and Sarah McLachlan, yes the singer, passed the torch on. And I felt it. Tears sprang to my eyes as it went by and I got it. The torch was really about community spirit, about people coming together, uniting around a common purpose. It was wholesome and good and brought out the best in all of us.

I had the time of my life during the Olympics. I didn’t go to any sporting events, but I did walk around some of the venues and pavilions, went to a play, part of the Cultural Olympiad, tried to skate in Robson Square, but the ice had melted. Mostly I enjoyed just meeting and talking to people, on the buses, on the street, giving directions, just breathing it all in. I took the bus up to my hometown during the second week; every little town along the way had flags plastered in the windows and waving from rooftops, and residents wore all the red and white garb. I have rarely watched the Olympics before, but that week, my parents and I were glued to the TV and became experts in curling, figure skating and speed skating. I got back to Vancouver in time for the closing ceremonies. It was magic. I am so happy that I was part of it, proud of the way we hosted the world, proud to be Canadian.

My friends and colleagues reported the same kind of conversion experience. Even the protesters and hooligans gave up after the first couple of days. If you can’t beat em, join ’em. And join ’em we did. I have heard so many beautiful stories of the human connections that were made, the sweet moments that we will cherish forever.

And so, one year later, I think to myself, just imagine what we could do if we all put even a tiny percentage of that energy, spirit, enthusiasm and money into housing every one in our city, in our province, in our country. And making sure no one goes to bed hungry. I would vote yes for that. I would even carry a torch for that goal.

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