Saturday, March 6, 2010

Post-Games Post-Mort Post

Well, they came and went. Here in Vancouver, the 2010 Winter Olympic Games have come to a close after seven long years of planning, hype, advertising, funding announcements, funding concealments, scandals, missteps, successes, and goofy mascots. The city seems to have settled into a collective state of hangover. Just ten minutes ago I walked down Granville Street to find myself a comfy chair, coffee, and Wi-Fi. Not even a week ago, Granville was essentially a massive frat party- air horns, silly costumes, (occasionally) unwarranted cheering and hooting, all set to the soundtrack of pseudo-comprehensible, multi-lingual renditions of “O Canada” (which is now apparently under review…wtf?). By contrast, this morning Granville was virtually deserted, decorated only by stylish downtowners calmly walking to work, and the scraps of celebrations gone by: half-hung “Go Canada Go” banners, the odd patch of confetti stomped into the pavement, and maple leaves scattered along the storefronts.

Mostly I’m grateful for this moment of reprieve, as it’s given me a chance to finally step back and try to survey what the greatest party even thrown meant for this city, how it felt to witness it, and the potential problems and opportunities that came along with it.

Vancouver over the past few weeks has been like no city I’ve ever been to. As an enthusiastic transplant from the prairies, this city has always seemed part magic to me- something about seeing the ocean, the Burrard Inlet, the soaring North Shore mountains, and Vancouver Island all at once while you sip a boutique coffee or chat over a glass of wine is a luxury that has yet to get old for me. Every time I visit the downtown core, I get off the train with a smile on my face. But when the Olympic hype started building, and the city was populated by enthusiastic helpers in snappy blue coats, tourists and observers from around the world, as well as citizens not knowing what to expect, the laid back, cosmopolitan din that usually hangs in the air here was inflated to a definite buzz. An energy even. Conversations about how the weather would factor in, about the potential for protest and social resistance, about the world media training its eye on the uneasy relationship between “have” and “have not” so powerfully articulated by the Downtown East Side, about how Canada would fare in the medal standings, about what this would mean for the arts and cultural industries in BC at a time when provincial arts funding was to be the subject of 90% cutbacks. If anything, the city became a massive discussion forum, with anti- and pro-Games activists clashing online, on the streets, and in the media, and moderates caught in an ambivalent position where the excess of the games and the very real problems of rampant corporatism, social justice cutbacks, and over security were constantly echoing in the back of their minds, but where the foreground was emphatically occupied by the excitement of the here and now. I spoke about the dialogic, innovative opportunities that the games opened up in a post I wrote following the early clashes between riot police and members of protest groups known as the Black Bloc and Olympic Heart Attack, and so I won’t delve too deeply into the issue of media, discourse, and democracy, but needless to say, the conversations bouncing through the social media networks were fiery, often polarized, and an embodiment of precisely what it means to live in a democratic Canadian culture.

A number of anti-games activists have claimed that the concerns outlined above (social justice, homelessness, poverty, arts funding) were glossed over by the wild popularity of the games as a branding exercise and as a global-scale marquee media event. I beg to differ. Never in my life have I witnessed the critical voice take such defiant charge of its own potential for change. On the Downtown East Side, a massive tent city was established for the second half of the games to draw attention to the rampant homelessness that characterizes the neighbourhood. A non-profit Legal Observer program was established for the duration of the Olympics on the second floor of W2 Culture + Media House as a way of guaranteeing that citizens, activists, and artists had access to information regarding their rights in a city under 24/7 video and police surveillance. Legitimate, peaceful protest groups such as the 2010 Welcoming Committee planned months in advance to have their voices of dissent heard by the world as the games opened, drawing immediate attention to pressing issues in this city that simply cannot be ignored. The list of examples goes on. The alternative, activist voice in this city has never had more opportunities to create change than it does now.

So while the problems persist, and the questions remain largely unanswered (well…some of them. The provincial budget was just released this week, slashing provincial arts funding by an astonishing 50%, down from initial estimates of 90%, conveniently painting the Liberal government as generous in tough economic times), now more than ever is the time where we may find answers and collaborative paths forward. Activating true dialogue, as the games have done, is the first step toward concrete social progress.

Beyond these fascinating developments in community discourse, the Games were also an amazing party. Canadian musicians like Hey Ocean!, Said the Whale, Hey Rosetta, Mother Mother, Dan Mangan, We Are the City, Broken Social Scene, Jill Barber, Kathleen Edwards, The Arkells, and Sam Roberts were among the must-see acts not just for local music fans, but for visitors from around the globe. Having made it to a few of these shows, I can personally attest to how ridiculously fun it is to experience live music for free with thousands of incredibly diverse and enthusiastic guests. I had the immense privilege of being downtown to watch Jennifer Heil medal in moguls, the Hamelins recover from their initial devastating loss with back-to-back golds, Canada play every single hockey game (including the total bummer loss to the US in the second round), and probably most memorable of all, me and a crew of out of town friends staked out a spot at a pub on Granville at 8:30 in the morning last Sunday to watch Canada play for the gold in men’s hockey. When Sidney Crosby scored that game-winning goal in overtime, I kid you not, you could feel the ground in the city rumble. Friends across False Creek from downtown told me that they could hear the cheers explode out of the core the second the puck hit the net. We celebrated with hugs and cheers in the bar, and then spilled out onto the street to celebrate with thousands of others. We weren’t just celebrating that final game, though. We were celebrating a country and a city ignited by Canadian pride, and the ability to finally be a Canadian without feeling the need to blush. We were celebrating the very ability to celebrate, and the apparent growing-out of our bashful national adolescence. It was thrilling, and a story I’m proud to tell. Mind you, I couldn’t tell it for a few days, seeing as how I had absolutely no voice by the end of it. But the magic of the Internet disavows my irresponsibility.

Granville and Robson about 10 minutes after Canada took gold in men's hockey

Granville Street celebrating hockey gold

I don’t think I would have rather been anywhere else in the world than Vancouver during the Olympics. Our city remains locked in intense social justice debates swirling around unresolved questions of power, inequity, and poverty. But for a couple weeks, I saw all of these issues championed and enthusiastically discussed alongside (and as a part of) a national celebration of our identity as a particular people with our own very unique set of characteristics. The games were expensive, challenging, exciting, and problematic, as any major event usually is. Where we struck it lucky, though, is that Canadians seem totally willing to address these issues head-on, and have the discussions that matter when they matter most. Also, they know how to party. In a big way.

1 comment:

Shona said...

Hi - I have been searching for a photo of the Vancouver streets post gold medal win and I love this one! Would you mind if I enlarged a copy just to put up in my office? I would need a high res copy if possible?

Thanks!