The Globe and Mail, July 2003
The observer may be excused who, looking at the ecstatic faces pictured on the front pages of Canada’s national daily and of its local Vancouver competitors, were to believe that some event of great and joyous moment to humankind was being reported on the morning of July 3. But no, we are celebrating the 2010 Winter Games. We greet with unbridled happiness nothing more than a decision that, seven years hence, a series of competitions to be pursued on flat icy surfaces or on frozen or powdered slopes will take place in southern British Columbia.
Many people not caught up in the triumphalist frenzy regard this news as disconcerting, at the very least. Only two weeks ago the B.C. government was prevented by public outrage, no more than temporarily perhaps, from shutting down facilities for learning-disabled children and emotionally traumatized youth in order to save a paltry 22 million dollars. Now hundreds of millions are to be lavished on a highway so that athletes and rich spectators may have easier passage to the ski hills of Whistler. Future generations will consider with dismay what this scale of priorities denotes about the values we as a society cherish today.
The Winter Games, we are told, will create an great “infrastructure” for Vancouver and its environs. But the infrastructure of a functional society is not to be found in elite sports arenas. It is in the workplaces where people labour; in the schools, where children are educated; in the community centres where people gather; in the hospitals where the ill and the frail are cared for; in the cultural halls where music and dance and art are celebrated. In British Columbia workplaces are “downsized,” schools are crumbling, music and art education are deprived of funds, hospitals are closing. The elderly are being abandoned. In the Downtown East Side where I work, new regulations rob people of their sparse disability pensions, HIV patients of their nutritional supplements. The nexus of genuine social interdependence is being eaten away by indifference and privatization and ground down by the current globalizing ethos. Instead, we are invited to join hands in the ersatz and evanescent “togetherness” of the Games.
The Olympics, writes an experienced and usually astute reporter in The Globe and Mail, may give Vancouver a chance to become a “world-class city”–a status to which, apparently, we in this West Coast backwater “lust for.” Are we truly to imagine that boosterism, pricey hotels and a handful of new hockey rinks can make for a world-class city? Transparent civic social climbing never leads to class. Class, by its very nature, is unconscious of itself. Rooted in tradition, innate self-respect and commitment, it does not depend on superficial virtues trumpeted in advertising campaigns.
In true world-class cities, whether New York or Paris or Prague or, perhaps, Montreal, one feels a genuine passion emanating from the citizens. People are passionate about their cities, about their communities; passionate about their successes and their failures, about their esthetics, their architecture and even about their uglineness. The passion excited by the Vancouver/Whistler Olympics is not about ourselves or our city: it is about having been chosen, about being seen as special, about being granted significance by some faceless ones far away to whom we have ceded the authority to judge our value. It is the sibling rivalry of the insecure child, writ large. Thinking to bask in the temporary regard of the outside world, we forget who we are. Such contrived passion diverts us from the politically engineered corrosion of values at the heart of our society. It is bread and circuses—only, this time, without the bread.