Friday, January 22, 2010

Olympic fever? More like a collective headache

Until now, I've figured that once the Olympics started British Columbians would probably get caught up in the whole experience.

All the excitement would outweigh the doubts about costs and benefits. We'd cheer the athletes and be dazzled by the venues and maybe even head down to one of those Spirit Squares.

Now I'm not so sure.

It could still happen. I lived in Montreal in 1976 and wasn't much interested in the Games - until they started. Then I lined up for tickets to European handball, watched the bicycle racers flash by on the highway and was amazed at city streets crowded with thousands of people from around the world.

But that was then.

Now the Games are about ridiculous security and huge prices for tickets and protecting sponsors' commercial interests.

And they are arriving in a recession, as government cuts support for children and seniors.

The latest polls suggest British Columbians aren't keen. Angus Reid Public Opinion found that 73 per cent of Canadians thought the Games would be good for British Columbia. But only 50 per cent of British Columbians thought the Games would be good for the province. And almost one-third thought the impact would be "mostly negative."

British Columbians were twice as likely to support organized protests against the Games. Again, almost one-third supported the demonstrations against the Games.

An earlier Ekos poll suggested one reason. It found 48 per cent of Canadians thought too much taxpayers' money had been spent on the Games.

In B.C., 68 per cent thought they were paying too high a price.

There are political repercussions to all this. Federally, Stephen Harper is hoping that Canadians will forget about his decision to shut down Parliament and feel great about Canada's medals.

Provincially, Gordon Campbell and the Liberals have promised great benefits - billions and billions - to communities throughout the province.

People, based on the polls, aren't buying it. Which could make for a grumpy public at an inopportune time. The gold medal hockey game and the closing ceremonies will be held Feb. 28, a Sunday about five weeks away. And two days later, the provincial government will present a very nasty budget.

The government limited most spending in its September "update" budget.

But the big cuts start this year. Spending reductions are planned in 13 of 20 ministries.

Education spending is slated to go up less than one per cent, Support for children and families is frozen. Agencies and non-profits in communities across B.C. are being told provincial funding is being cut or eliminated.

And while the health budget is to rise 4.7 per cent, the actual increase will be $216 million less than it was this year. (And cuts could be deeper than planned, based on the gloomy tone being taken by Finance Minister Colin Hansen.)

The nature of British Columbia society is being changed significantly and the role of government rewritten.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is a bad thing that the change is being made by stealth, without public support or even discussion.

Campbell denied the need for any change in the election campaign. B.C. would run a small deficit and wouldn't cut health or education services, he promised. But the deficit went from $495 million to $2.8 billion. And now the cuts are coming.

The Games were supposed to make it a little easier for people to take the cuts. Optimism about better times ahead, pride about our role and all that.

It doesn't look that way right now. Instead, they might make people more riled about all that Olympic spending followed immediately by cuts to services.

I hope we get into the Games. We've spent the money; why not enjoy the party, be good hosts, hope governments make the most of the economic opportunity and sort things out once the athletes have gone home.

Footnote: Perhaps part of the problem is that there was so little real public discussion about the Games bid. Then-premier Glen Clark set it all in motion on May 1, 1998, committing $150,000 to an effort to win the right to be the Canadian bidder. The process has just rolled on since then.


Norman Farrell said...

One early mistake was creating the 2010 Olympic bid committee as an insular group able to meet in the bar of West Vancouver's Hollyburn Country Club.

This "sporting" effort was conceived by business elites who saw opportunities for huge profits. They arranged for taxpayers to pay while they garnered benefits. Now, these people invite ordinary citizens to volunteer for unpaid jobs as parking lot wardens, litter pickers and toilet cleaners.

So, if parents want to take two kids to see Latvia play Slovakia, go to the aftermarket for hockey tickets. Four tickets will run you about $1,500 unless you are pals with a BC Liberal insider who have taxpayers paying for their tickets.

off-the-radar said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughtful columns Paul, always make me think, even when I disagree.

I cannot support the Olympics in any way. It's a bloated corporate creature sucking resources away from desperately-needed social programs for a two-week party for the rich.

In Victorian times, would you or I take our friends and family to go to a public hanging and celebrate with the crowd? No. Even though it was happening and there was nothing we could do about it.

In fact by protesting, or resisting, in small gestures or large ways,(as per Chris Shaw's recent opinion piece in the Straight) that may allow other citizens in other countries to opt out of future Olympic fiascos.

Anonymous said...

When I hear John Furlong saying people are dying to support the Olympics I think of those in pain who are elderly like an aquaintance and had hip surgery delayed yet again. Is the pain costing her part of her life because she can't walk properly. Therefore cutting down on her exerxise. The constant rah rah by the media is annoying

Norman Farrell said...

"We've spent the money; why not enjoy the party, be good hosts, hope governments make the most of the economic opportunity . . ."

And do it again when the elites want us to pay for their next party or perhaps for another convention center that will leapfrog over the one that leapfrogs over our most recent. Maybe, if we spend enough, we'll win the race before they cost $10 Billion.

Don't worry though. If it's going to happen, might as well lie back and enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I too wonder how, as regular British Columbians, we should be able to simply ignore the costs - not only in terms of the squandered billions - but in terms of real hardship, suffering, and doing without that the elite of this province have been so prepared for others to suffer. Sure, Paul, put on your happy face and "enjoy the party". But just watch out for the hangover.