Four years later, a reflection on the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games
On the morning of Friday, February 12, 2010, the Olympic Torch Relay was on its final stretch in Downtown Vancouver. Torchbearers weaved through city streets lined with tens of thousands of people, many waking early to catch a final glimpse of the Olympic Flame before it went into hibernation in preparation for its final destination later that evening.
The same will happen again in Sochi this week when Russia stages the most expensive and extravagant Olympic Games ever in its attempt to outdo Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games. Meanwhile, here at home in the time since the 2010 Olympic Cauldron was extinguished, the impact and legacies of the Games have begun to unravel and we have also gained some greater perspective on our performance in preparing for “Canada’s Games.”
This feature will examine some preconceptions over the planning and staging of the Vancouver Games in addition to a special exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of producing the Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies inside the old BC Place Stadium.
Once in a lifetime
There is no question we had one of the roughest starts in history for an Olympic Games, especially in recent memory. A dead athlete on the morning of Opening day, a Olympic Cauldron malfunction during the worst time possible, warm weather and lack of snow at the freestyle skiing and snowboarding venues at nearby Cypress (which later led to some ticket cancellations), faulty ice resurfacing machines at the Richmond Oval, and even a violent riot by anti-Games protesters.
While some in the world media had quickly written off the Vancouver Olympics as “the worst ever” and a “calamity” just days after the Opening Ceremony, the Games and VANOC made a quick major rebound and overcame the major hurdles faced early-on during its first week. By Sunday, February 28th, these Vancouver Games were lamented by the world media as an immense success – as one of the best Winter Olympics ever, if not the best yet. From tragedy evolved triumph; Vancouver 2010 unfolded as if it were a storybook.
Civic pride and Canadian patriotism reached levels never seen before in this city and country. For scholars, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics was on the same level as Montreal’s Expo ’67 . While Expo ’67 Montreal marked the beginning of a new age of Canadian patriotism and identity, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics also played a equally important role by renewing and reaffirming our love for our country.
Canada did not only make history in Vancouver by winning its first gold medal at an Olympic Games hosted on Canadian soil (zero golds at Montreal ’76 and Calgary ’88), it also broke the all-time record of winning the most gold medals ever at a Winter Olympics: 26 medals awarded at Vancouver stayed in Canada, with 14 of those medals being gold including the holy grail – the men’s ice hockey gold.
Vancouverites also learned a bit more about themselves. We saw who we were as a community and our true potential as a city when we became determined and competitive, when we pooled our resources and collective minds to focus on fulfilling a great vision for our city. We also learned more about our fun side. We did not only know how to party, but we also wanted more of it long after the Olympic festival was all over.
At long last, the city had shed off its “No Fun City” banner. Well, at least we had thought. The anomaly that was the June 2011 Stanley Cup Riot sent public officials back into their traditionally conservative stance on hosting major public events in the city.
But for more than two weeks, as Canada’s Brian Williams had termed, the streets of Vancouver became an lively “electric village.” Never have our city streets seen so much activity, nor has there been an Olympic city as lively as Vancouver (the only cities that come close are Sydney and Lillehammer). The atmosphere in the streets could be described as surreal and magical. I will never forget the sea of jubilant sea of red and white crowds down Granville and Robson, especially on the final Sunday when we won gold. Everyone in Vancouver was watching the hockey game, and when Crosby scored that overtime goal there was a deafening roar across the city – as if everyone watching in their living rooms, at bars and restaurants, at the Live Sites, in the streets, and in their cars screamed and cheered in pure ecstatic joy (redundancy to describe that moment is needed).
For 17-days in February 2010, according to International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge, Vancouver had “embraced the Olympic Games like no other city in the world before”; Vancouver 2010 was truly the “People’s Games.” It will remain in the history books as one of greatest and self-defining moments of our country, and even more so for our city and province: these Games were much more than just the Expo ’86 of this generation and they will be remembered fondly in the decades to come for their tangible and intangible legacies.
We were transformed into not a better city, but we were also inspired to continue dreaming of bigger and better things for this place we call home. This optimism is priceless.
200,000 people descended onto the streets of Downtown Vancouver in the moments after Sydney Crosby’s golden goal on Sunday, February 28, 2010. The crowds were so large that all roads into the Downtown peninsula were closed. Below, a photo of the madness that was Granville Street after men’s ice hockey gold. In the distance, thousands are traveling on foot across the Granville Street Bridge into Downtown to take part in the celebrations.
Skeptics were wrong… very wrong
Public opinion on the Games was not always positive, Vancouverites were divided on the perception of the Olympics until the buzz and excitement of the entire affair arrived when the Olympic Torch Relay began to transverse the Metro Vancouver region. Subsequently, over the last two years, local public opinion over Vancouver’s Olympic memory has remained virtually positive.
In the years leading up to Vancouver 2010, the image and perception of the Games were often hijacked by political opponents, including by the BC NDP (ironic fact: prior to the party’s 2001 collapse, the BC NDP were responsible for initiating the 2010 Olympic bid and were just as supportive of the Olympic effort as the BC Liberals would later be. Glen Clark’s BC NDP was responsible for the successful campaign that gave Vancouver the Canadian rights to submit a 2010 bid to the IOC. Vancouver defeated Calgary and Quebec City in the Canadian process.).
Of particular focus, you may also recall the infamously illegal antics of the virulent Anti-Poverty Committee (APC) or the highly erroneous sensationalism from anti-Games activist leaders such as Chris Shaw and David Cunningham.
They provided ammunition for much of the media sensationalism we saw over that 7-year Games organizing period from 2003 to 2010, spewing factual nonsense and creating imaginary issues and correlations. It was all in the interest of advancing their selfish interests under false and delusional pretenses.
They disrupted countless Olympic celebrations and events in the lead-up to the Games. They disrupted the 3-year countdown public celebration, which included unveiling of the OMEGA Olympic Countdown Clock at the Vancouver Art Gallery, by rushing onto the stage and pushing the emcee aside. They even came prepared with make-shift weapons, bringing rocks and paint-filled balloons to that event.
In the years that followed, the Olympic Countdown Clock, paid for by OMEGA (an IOC sponsor), would be the symbol of their aggression and angst against the Olympics. The clock was vandalized numerous times, far too many to count, to the point that the City of Vancouver installed a CCTV camera to monitor activity in the plaza in addition to hiring 24/7 manned security presence to protect the clock from vandals. There were also the damages that had to be repaired each time.
The Olympic Countdown Clock at the Vancouver Art Gallery receives a scrubbing after another fallout with anti-Olympic vandals.
Image: Metro News
In one other high-profile occasion, in the name of “protesting” they disrupted and cursed singing school children over noise-drowning megaphones during a special public event to celebrate the raising of the Olympic Flag at Vancouver City Hall. At another occasion, they even clashed with attendees – children and their parents – of the Canadian Pacific Olympic “Spirit Train” events. They also vowed to disrupt the Olympic Torch Relay’s journey in Canada.
For fear of violent disruption, their threats forced VANOC to cancel plans for further public countdown celebrations, including events that mark the 1-year and 100-day countdowns to the Games. Such public countdown traditions were maintained by previous Olympic host cities and London 2012.
During the Games, when protesters and activist mobs were ignored and outnumbered by the celebratory and enthusiastic crowds in the city streets, they decided to go off on a violent rampage by inciting a riot through the city streets. This was all done in their attempt to (in what they termed) “resist” the Games, the establishment, and to embarrass our city, province, and country while the world was watching – to embarras you because they did not get what they want, and to disrupt your enjoyment of the Olympic festivities.
These petty activist individuals and organizations took away from our hard-earned and paid-for Olympic experience.
Anti-Olympic protesters clad in black, holding up mob torches and a “Resist 2010″ banner.
Photo credit: CBC
However, in fairness, they were factually right on a few (very few) accounts. Some could also argue they kept public officials and VANOC on their toes with their performance and accountability to the public. However, the few positive attributes of their legal and illegal efforts of keeping public officials on their toes do not outweigh the harm done to the overall public experience of the Games and their actions certainly increased the financial cost of the Games, such as the need for increased security. They could also not have been more wrong on their reasoning, logical thinking process, and the overall big picture of the entire Games organizing process.
Their hyperbolic concerns also included dubious claims that the homeless would be displaced, that people had been (and would continue to be) evicted from housing (even though this is in fact illegal under BC law) in the Downtown Eastside to make way for tourist accommodations, and that we would become a “police state” with “armed soldiers at every street corner” and our civil liberties restricted. There were also irrational fears that the closed-circuit surveillance camera infrastructure (CCTV) installed in city streets for temporary Olympic security measures would become permanent fixtures after the Games. For these individuals and organizations, public safety was not a concern for them. After all, they had an interest to destabilize and disrupt the Games.
All negative and illogical fears over security and homeless displacement proved to be completely groundless and unfounded.
One of their main criticisms was on the financial cost of the Games. In truth, totals vary over the full cost of Canada’s 2010 Olympic venture. It depends on what you consider as an Direct cost (what was required to be specially built/spent on in order to stage the Games) and what is an Indirect cost (what would have been built regardless of the Games; projects planned regardless of the Games).
In the interest of fairness, a total of $6-billion was spent between all three levels of government (federal, provincial, and municipal) and crown corporations to deliver both the Direct and Indirect costs of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler. Of that $6-billion, approximately $3-billion was spent by the Government of British Columbia. Furthermore, $925-million of the total $3-billion spent in-province was British Columbia’s direct cost of organizing the Olympics (such as contributions towards sports venue construction and security).
The Canada Line, for instance, is among the list of projects that would have been built with or without the Games. It had previously been proposed and planned by the Socred provincial government, but a change in the party’s electoral fortunes and local NIMBYism along the Cambie Corridor led to the cancellation of the project. It can indisputably be argued that Vancouver’s north-south corridor requires a high-capacity rapid transit line, and such a project has also been in Metro Vancouver’s long-term plans for decades.
There’s also the Vancouver Convention Centre which had outgrown its facilities at Canada Place and was in need of an expanded space to accommodate growth in demand. Prior to the completion of the new West Building, the convention centre was fully booked on a regular basis and a new facility was envisioned in the mid-1990s.
While Olympic organizers had planned on using the convention centre’s East Building facilities (Canada Place) for the Main Press Centre, there were no firm plans to use the new and already planned West Building for the International Broadcast Centre (IBC). VANOC had originally planned on using Richmond’s Garden City Lands to construct temporary structures for the spaces required for the IBC.
Direct costs includes items such as the $880-million taxpayer funded construction and renovation project of the Olympic competition sports venues and stadiums in Vancouver, UBC, Richmond, West Vancouver (Cypress Mountain), and Whistler. Competition sports venue construction and renovations were funded by all three levels of government. This also includes $580-million from VANOC, funded equally by the provincial and federal governments.
Of the $580-million VANOC contributed towards constructing and renovating its 2010 sports venues and stadiums, this budget consisted a $110-million legacy fund that would go towards the costs of operating and maintaining the new Whistler Olympic Park, Whistler Sliding Centre, and Richmond Olympic Oval for the next 30 years after the Games. Excluding the $110-million post-Games legacy fund, VANOC’s actual venue construction costs were significantly less at just $470-million.
The remaining $300-million of the $880-million in venue construction investments came from the City of Richmond and the City of Vancouver through their financial contributions to complete the Richmond Olympic Oval (now a community and recreational centre), Vancouver Olympic Centre (now known as Hillcrest Community Centre: a swimming pool, library, community space, gym, ice rink), and new ice rinks at Trout Lake and Killarney (to replace existing aging facilities).
Two other significant budgetary items include the $900-million Integrated Security Unit budget (largely paid for by the federal government but with contributions by the provincial government) and the City of Vancouver’s $579-million construction loan to Millennium Development Corporation for the use of completing the Vancouver Olympic Village in time for the Games. Shortly after the 2008 recession crisis, when its full impact on global financial markets became apparent, the Olympic Village project ran into financial trouble when Wall Street-based Fortress Investment Corp. stopped loan payments to Millennium. The developer required these loans to finance the construction of the Vancouver Olympic Village (Millennium would later default on these loans, and would hand over all of its properties and assets as part of the settlement agreement).
Other direct costs include the $160-million spent by the provincial government to create the 2010 Winter Games Secretariat and extensive tourism marketing initiatives to manage and capitalize on Olympic investments. Direct costs also include millions in sponsorship agreements from government-owned crown corporations such as BC Hydro, ICBC, BC Lottery Corporation, Canada Post, the Royal Canadian Mint (most notably known for producing the Olympic medals awarded to athletes), and Port Metro Vancouver.
The City of Vancouver (and to a lesser extent Richmond, Surrey, and Whistler) spent millions to build and program celebration Live City sites to allow the public (especially non-Olympic ticket holders) to take part in the Olympic experience. This heightened the “Olympic experience” and ultimately contributed towards the immense success of the Games in the eyes of Vancouverites and the world media. Vancouver also spent $8.5-million on a free and temporary demonstration 1.8-km Olympic Line streetcar between the Canada Line’s Olympic Village Station and Granville Island, a means to shuttle revellers between celebration and festival sites and to showcase light rail technology as a possible mode of public transport, particularly for the city’s planned Downtown Streetcar network. Two new Bombardier trams that were owned by the transit system in Brussels were loaned for the 2-month long demonstration project.
Passengers load onto the Olympic Line streetcar to Granville Island at SkyTrain’s Canada Line’s Olympic Village Station.
Credit: The Globe and Mail
The provincial government also spent millions on Games festivities programming, including the BC Pavilion within an animated Robson Square and free-entry to the Vancouver Art Gallery. Robson Square festivities culminated with nightly pyrotechnic displays, and it became one of the central gathering areas for revellers. BC also spent $4.5-million on two massive sets of LED-lit Olympic rings at Coal Harbour (located in front of the International Broadcast Centre at the Vancouver Convention Centre) and Vancouver International Airport as well as $2.6-million to renovate the UBC Robson Square campus into the BC Media Centre to house 3,000 of the world’s unaccredited media.
The famous giant LED Olympic rings at Coal Harbour in front of the Vancouver Convention Centre turned yellow whenever Canada won a gold medal.
Image: Peter van North
On the federal government’s part, it built a $10-million Canada Pavilion at Live City Downtown, contributed $25-million towards funding the Olympic Torch Relay’s journey across Canada (the longest domestic Olympic Torch Relay in history), and allocated $20-million towards the $48.5-million budget to stage the Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies at BC Place Stadium.
The “indirect costs” of the Vancouver 2010 Games hold the status as being some of the largest public projects ever undertaken in the history of the province. They were also some of the most-debated projects in recent memory, debates over whether such projects should be built and whether these projects were part of the “Olympic cost.”
Many would automatically assume these projects were Olympic purpose projects, an Olympic cost. I would argue otherwise.
The projects that take up the lions share of indirect costs of the Games are the (1) $2.05-billion SkyTrain Canada Line, the (2) $883-million expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre, and the (3) $600-million safety upgrade to the Sea-to-Sky Highway.
These 3 megaprojects were not Olympic costs, they were long planned and thought of before anyone dreamt of bidding for the 2010 Games. If anything, the Olympics expedited the construction of much-needed and pre-planned critical infrastructure. The Games inspired us to push beyond, to build a better city.
VANOC OPERATING BUDGET
The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) was responsible for planning and overseeing the delivery of both the capital and operational aspects of the entire Olympic event. VANOC’s budget was divided into two separate and distinct areas: (1) Competition Sports Venue Construction and (2) VANOC Operations.
VANOC’s $470-million in venue construction projects (excluding the aforementioned $110-million post-Games legacy fund) were funded entirely and equally by both the provincial and federal government. On the other hand, VANOC’s $1.884-billion Operating Budget was almost entirely covered by non-taxpayer and private sources, specifically from revenue streams such as domestic and international sponsorship, television rights, merchandising and licensing, and ticketing.
Despite the onslaught of the 2008 recession, VANOC raised an astounding $760-million in domestic Canadian sponsorship (from sponsors like Bell, RBC, Rona, Hudson’s Bay Company, Air Canada, etc.). It also received a $479.7-million contribution from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), in addition to $173.6-million from the IOC’s international sponsorship revenues. $269.5-million was generated from Olympic/Paralympic ticket sales and another $54.6-million was created from merchandising. Olympic ticket sales were astounding: 97% of the 1.54-million Olympic tickets available were sold.
The VANOC Operating Budget does not include any venue construction costs, it refers solely to the costs associated with pre-Games planning and Games-time operations and delivery. The Operating Budget includes:
- the salaries of VANOC’s full-time staff;
- organizational, marketing, administrative, and legal costs;
- the cost to operate the competition sports venues and stadiums at Games-time;
- the cost to operate the International Broadcast Centre (IBC), Main Press Centre (MPC), and the Vancouver and Whistler Olympic Villages;
- the cost to stage the Opening, Closing, and Victory Ceremonies at BC Place and Whistler Celebration Plaza;
- the Olympic Torch Relay, public celebrations, festivities and cultural activities;
- bus transportation costs for athletes, VIPs, volunteers, and ticket holders;
- cost of city decorations;
- cost of training volunteers;
- and the cost of hosting the Paralympics immediately after the conclusion of the Olympics.
VANOC divides its final operating expenses in this way: $723-million for services and Games operations; $452.4-million for technology; $288-million for sport and Games operations; $167.7-million for revenue, marketing, and communications; $130-million for workforce and sustainability; and $115.1-million for finance and legal.
In the end, VANOC achieved a balanced budget on its $1.884-billion operating budget. There was no organizational deficit.
Long overdue for some perspective
With 2.3-million people, Vancouver was the largest and most populated urban region to ever host the Winter Olympics. We also had much of the transportation infrastructure, accommodations infrastructure, and competition sports venues and stadiums in place.
Compared to Salt Lake 2002, Torino 2006, and especially Sochi 2014 (see below), relatively modest preparations were needed to prepare Vancouver and Whistler for the 2010 Games. Simply put, on July 2, 2003 in Prague, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2010 Olympic Winter Games to the most prepared city in decades.
Critics often argued the Games were highly unaffordable and that its organizers created plans that were far too extravagant. However, the evidence points towards the otherwise. The combined direct and indirect cost of the 2010 Games to Canadian taxpayers was $6-billion, with approximately $3-billion funded by the Government of British Columbia. While a total $6-billion figure may seem alarming (of which $3-billion is by the Province of BC), it must be put in perspective.
This was an expense over a duration of more than seven years, from 2003 to the year ending in December 2010.
May 2007 construction photo of UBC Thunderbird Sports Centre, the secondary venue for ice hockey.
Photo credit: Wesbridge
To put this in further perspective, British Columbia has an annual provincial budget of approximately $40-billion. $3-billion in Olympic-related investments over seven years is highly affordable, especially considering the majority of the cost goes towards the construction of infrastructure that will remain and benefit the Metro Vancouver region long after the Games have ended. The Canada Line, the expansion of the Vancouver Convention Centre, and the improved Sea-to-Sky Highway will be here for us to use for a very long time to come.
Of the $3-billion in total Olympic investments by the Government of British Columbia, $925-million is the province’s direct cost to stage the Games (the remaining are indirect costs, largely from the 3 aforementioned megaprojects).
THE “BREAD, NOT CIRCUSES” ARGUMENT
We have heard of deafening cries that the Olympic money should have been spent on funding our provincial health care and education systems. First of all, would the money even exist if it were not for the Olympics? Secondly, this again must be put into perspective.
In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, BC spent $15.5-billion in running its health care system – or approximately 40% of the total provincial treasury. If we were to not spend tax dollars on the Olympics and instead put it into health care, the $925-million from BC’s direct Olympic spending would barely keep our provincial health care system afloat for 3 weeks.
In the fiscal year beginning in 2000, BC’s health care budget was $8-billion and it was expected then that by 2020 the annual budget would reach $16-billion. This figure came 8 years early as BC will spend an expected $17.3-billion on health care in the 2014-2015 fiscal year, a budgetary increase of nearly $2-billion over just two years since 2012. The average annual growth in health care spending here in BC has hovered at around 6% over the past decade. Similar arguments can also be made for the multi-billion dollar annual education budget, which is BC’s second largest budgetary item after health care. However, unlike healthcare’s high demand and annual growth rate, there is evidence of declining school enrollment province-wide.
Building new and larger hospitals is also easier said than done. Finding the money to build a hospital is relatively easier than finding the money to operate the medical facility at a yearly basis. These are all one-time costs: the Olympics, a new train system, a new hospital or school. In comparison, the cost to operate and maintain hospitals and schools becomes a structural cost to annual and consecutive budgets. Hospitals, in particular, are highly expensive to run.
This is by no means an argument against provincial health care and education, it is merely an example to show that the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games were a drop in the bucket for the provincial government treasury (and federal government for that matter). If you were blaming the Olympics for shortcomings in social housing, health care, and education, you would be better off examining the actual problem rather than targeting the Olympics as an attention-grabbing scapegoat.
MINIMALISM AND MODESTY
Moreover, given that relatively little construction was required (compared to Salt Lake 2002, Torino 2006, and Sochi 2014) as many indoor stadium venues, ski hills, and much of the infrastructure needed was already in place, Vancouver 2010 was a very modest and minimalist Olympics. The irrational fears of Montreal 1976-style debt were completely unfounded and have not been realized for all three levels of government.
Unlike Montreal 1976, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Torino 2006, Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Sochi 2014, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics were anything but extravagant. We did not build extravagant infrastructure and facilities for the Games. No Bird’s Nest equivalent nor Montreal Olympic Stadium (the “Big Owe”) equivalent would be built in Vancouver.
Early-on during the 2010 bid phase, one of the projects contemplated for the Olympic bid was to build a new $6-billion highway to Whistler. The highway would begin at Seymour Mountain at the Seymour Water Treatment Plant. From here, a 2-km road tunnel would be bored through the mountain. Other extravagant ideas floated around included building a new major ski resort near Port Coquitlam to host the skiing and sliding competitions. Of course, pragmatism prevailed and none of this happened. We have Cypress Mountain and world-renown Whistler-Blackcomb, one of the world’s largest and best ski resorts. We also had the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which was scheduled by the Ministry of Transportation to receive major improvements and upgrades regardless of the Games. The Olympics simply expedited the upgrade by five years.
Cypress Mountain was also considered to host the nordic combined, cross country, and ski jumping events. The mountain already had very extensive cross-country facilities and trails. In the end, however, due to major capacity and logistical concerns as well as concerns with snow accumulation, these venues would be located at Whistler instead.
At one point, VANOC also considered having ski jumping at Grouse Mountain (for the stunning city views) but transportation and capacity logistics was an impenetrable obstacle. It also considered moving snowboarding and freestyle skiing from Cypress Mountain to Whistler, but it took the gamble with the North Shore mountain given the venue’s close proximity to the city and the incredible city views from the venue. As it turned out, that gamble may not have been worth it. In addition to alpine skiing at Whistler Creekside, Whistler-Blackcomb could have easily hosted the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events. More importantly, snow accumulation was seldom an issue for Whistler.
Put together, there was relatively little financial risk to begin with for Vancouver 2010. Only what was really needed was built. To be sustainable and cost efficient, we also utilized what already existed (to the best of our ability, within the restraints of requirements and sound logistics).
The Games became even more minimalist when the 2008 global financial crisis forced VANOC to cut back on further plans, such as the cutbacks on much of the $28-million that had originally been allocated for decorating the city with the blue, green, and white Olympic colours. There would be no large-format, multi-storey tall “Look of the Games” graphics plastered on BC Place, sports venues, and some of Downtown Vancouver’s tallest and most prominent buildings. Robson and Granville Streets would not be decked out in blue, green, and white.
Plans to attach large LED Olympic rings along the sides of Burrard Bridge and the Lions Gate Bridge were also axed, like what was done for the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the 2000 Summer Games. Most spectacular of the canceled decorations plans were a large set of Olympic rings in the centre of False Creek in front of Vancouver Olympic Village and another set of LED rings at the Peak of Vancouver on Grouse Mountain that would have been viewable from quite a distance.
Original plans to decorate the city in Olympic colours were canceled due to cutbacks. One of the complaints made by the foreign press and even London 2012 organizers were the lack of any city decorations to acknowledge the Games were here. Aside from the large red and white crowds, Vancouver was still regular Vancouver – unlike what previous host cities have done by decking out their cities, which was a tradition continued by London last summer for the 2012 Summer Games. (Photo credit: IBI Group)
During VANOC’s first four years, the organization rode on an economic boom and was able to secure lucrative and record domestic sponsorships. However, this period was also associated with rapidly rising construction and labour costs.
Construction costs rose dramatically due to a labour shortage and rapidly rising construction materials costs (from the demand created by construction of Olympic-related megaprojects and rampant local condo construction; the massive building boom in the United Arab Emirates and the Olympic megaprojects in China as well as its Three Gorges Dam construction also inflated global prices).
Critics and those in the media were quick to correlate overruns to incompetence. However, they also refused to acknowledge or report that countless private sector (market-oriented) projects like condo buildings, housing complexes, and hotel towers were also running into large overruns due to rapidly rising construction costs and the local labour shortage. The same could also be said on the overruns incurred by many non-Olympic related public projects across the region during this time.
VANOC cut back on nearly $150-million from the design and scope of its competition sports venues in an effort to respond to rising construction and labour costs. In the end, VANOC built merely functional venues with little aesthetic appeal (although the venues were certainly very well-designed for post-Games high utility).
There would be no “starchitect” masterpiece stadium for these Games, nor would the aging Pacific Coliseum receive the full top-down makeover that had originally been planned. With the new UBC Thunderbird Sports Centre (ice hockey), its seating capacity was reduced and its overall aesthetic design was streamlined into a utilitarian metal and concrete beige box. The speed skating oval, originally located atop Burnaby Mountain at Simon Fraser University, was relocated due to the high-cost of building atop the mountain slope.
THE OLYMPIC OPENING & CLOSING CEREMONIES AT BC PLACE STADIUM
With the exception of the Richmond Olympic Oval, the sports venues for Vancouver 2010 were merely functional designs and this was no different for BC Place Stadium. It was certainly odd (or at least seemingly so) that nobody at VANOC nor the provincial government thought it would be appropriate to give BC Place Stadium the makeover it deserved in time for the Games. This was not even considered in bid plans.
Of course, BC Place did receive a $563-million renovation which included a new retractable roof, but only after the Olympic affair had ended. Quite odd, indeed.
From the outside looking in, it seemed that it took an entire roof collapse for public officials and VANOC to realize that BC Place Stadium was the centrepiece of the Olympics. Attention largely hovered over the completion of transportation infrastructure and the record setting early completion of sports venues, but there was very little “T.L.C.” with BC Place – the Olympic Stadium. BC Place was hardly ever mentioned as an Olympic venue in the lead-up to the Games until its roof collapse. It was to host the Opening Ceremony, the most important event of the Olympics – the one event that has the most impact on the world’s image on Vancouver, the tone setter for the 16-days that followed. BC Place Stadium in its outdated, aged, and deplorable state was certainly not an Olympic-worthy venue for an Olympic Ceremony nor the Closing Ceremony and nightly Victory Ceremonies.
A large tear causes air to rush out of the stadium and the roof to collapse in January 2007.
Photo credit: willbop
Immediately after the January 5, 2007 roof collapse, PAVCO and government officials made haste and created plans to initiate major stadium renovations and the installation of a new retractable roof by November 2009 in time for the Games. November 2009 was the move-in date for David Atkins Enterprises (DAE), the creative team behind the Vancouver 2010 Ceremonies, as they needed several months to set-up the Ceremonies, test systems (including the Olympic Cauldron), and rehearse sequences and performances.
First rendering of a renovated BC Place with a retractable roof, to be completed in time for the 2010 Games. Look closely and you can see the Vancouver 2010 logo imprinted onto the exterior of the stadium. The Olympic sport pictograms are also depicted on the roof’s upper sections.
Photo credit: PAVCO
However, it was too little and far too late. The timeframe was far too tight for anything major to be done to the stadium in time for the Olympics. PAVCO instead quickly pushed forward with minor aesthetic renovations in time for the Olympics. This included modest renovations to the entrances, concourse, washrooms, and food services in time for 2010. These pre-Olympic renovations were only the initial phases of the post-Games stadium makeover.
Ceremonies Creative Director David Atkins and his Australian-based team would have to make the best of what they had with the quarter-century old marshmallow. In 2011, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with creative genius David Atkins. He told me there were immense challenges and restrictions with what they could do inside BC Place. In fact, it was the most difficult and daunting project he had ever worked on and this was coming from the guy who also produced the Sydney 2000 Olympic Ceremonies, the Doha 2006 Asian Games Ceremonies, and the Opening Ceremony for Expo 2010 Shanghai.
This was not just any indoor stadium, making this the first ever indoor Olympic Opening Ceremony. Atkins also had to worry about maintaining the air pressure inside the stadium to ensure the fabric roof stays afloat.
The indoor and air-pressurized environment greatly affected what they could do with the creative aspects of the Olympic Ceremonies. With BC Place’s air lock doors, it meant they had to consistently monitor how the doors were opened even for regular events. For the Ceremonies, having many mass performances/acts/segments was never on the drawing board given how logistically difficult it would be to have many performers quickly and efficiently enter and exit both the stadium performance floor and the stadium air locks. For the same reasons, having numerous big props would also be a major logistical issue and would explain why the Opening Ceremony would instead be heavy on the usage of lighting and projections in lieu of props.
All the rigging, lighting, projectors, and projection screens had to be suspended from the air suspended roof. Being that this was also an air supported roof, the roof moved as much as 1.3-metres during performances (even more when spectators were entering the stadium) and this required the team to work even harder and devote extra resources into finding an effective solution. As the roof moved, so would the location of the projections.
To add on to the list of difficulties, the inflatable roof has no structure so they were limited on the amount of weight they could hang overhead and that limit got more and more critical the further they moved towards the centre of the stadium. Thousands of tons of rigging and equipment were being suspended by a roof that floated on pressurized air.
As has been the case for every pre-existing Olympic Stadium except for Vancouver’s BC Place, stadiums used for Olympic Ceremonies are given major refits and these renovations are also carried out to ensure the needs of the Ceremonies producers (their creative elements for the shows) are met. This type and scale of renovation was not done for BC Place beforehand.
Instead, Atkins had to largely “reverse plan” the Ceremonies – to plan the productions based entirely on the restraints of BC Place. There are restraints for any venue, whether it be a Broadway theatre or outdoor stadium, but BC Place was an entirely different animal. Indoor, air pressure supported, 27-years old, and near-zero renovations.
It limited his team’s creativity, and his team would have to spend much of their original $40-million Opening and Closing Ceremonies budget on making their own modifications to BC Place. Instead of spending money on production, equipment, choreography, training, and rehearsals, Atkins had to spend more money on BC Place out of his own Ceremonies budget.
While $40-million seems like a lot of money for the two shows and is consistent with the Ceremonies budgets of Sydney, Salt Lake, and Torino, it is not much to work with when the venue is anything but polished and modern. The production team was required to take money out of the Ceremonies production budget to bring certain aspects of BC Place up to standard. These technical aspects were normally covered by stadium renovation expenses.
$40-million also does not buy nearly as much in Vancouver as it does elsewhere given the city’s (and province’s) renown high costs. While there is no doubt Vancouver has an immensely large and talented world-class film industry that could have been tapped into to help produce the Ceremonies, this requires much more money – money that VANOC did not have.
Considering the elaborate and epic shows Zhang Yimou delivered for China, it might be surprising to know that the budget for Beijing 2008’s Opening and Closing Ceremonies was just US$100-million. To replicate the same scale, precision, quality, quantity, and attention to detail as the Chinese Ceremonies for Vancouver would likely require a budget twenty-fold the size of what VANOC provided to Atkins. In Beijing, you had thousands of soldiers practicing every single day for years on their performance for the Opening Ceremony. They lived in, trained, and practiced in the vast underground spaces of the Bird’s Nest.
Of course, this is a bit of an extreme example – there was never any intention to mimic or compete with Beijing. However, the main point is that Atkins was given a much bigger mandate and challenge (because of his BC Place “problem child”) and a budget that does much less in a city that makes you pay through the teeth.
It is not surprising that Atkins ran out of money to deliver his full vision 6-months prior to the Games. With funds exhausted, he sent an urgent letter to VANOC’s Board of Directors, pleading his case for an additional $8.5-million to deliver the Ceremonies. If he did not receive additional funding, to quote, “Canada’s image will suffer greatly.”
He was not kidding, he was already working with very little. The additional funding was required to complete the design, manufacturing, and installation of the large projection screens hung high above the centre of the stadium. It lowered into the show and from within it two smaller concentric projection surface rings would also drop down. Among its serveral uses for the Opening Ceremony was to depict tall vertical “trees” that grew from the projected “forest floor” up to the “leaf canopy” of the rings. And most impressive was a rip-stop nylon “storm” and “mountain” projection surface that rose floor to ceiling towards the end of the cultural performance segment.
Photo 1: Technical projection systems. Photo 2: Aerial performance rehearsals at BC Place Stadium.
Photo credit: DAE Global
“Peaks of Endeavour” during the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremony. This is just one of the many segments that relied on the imagery projected onto the large projection surface ring hung above the centre of the stadium.
Photo credit: mzcloud
Thankfully, VANOC found Atkins the $8.5-million he needed for the rigging and projection surfaces. As it turned out, this was one of the most definitive and important aspects of the entire show. Without it, there is no doubt the Opening and Closing Ceremonies would have been immensely lacklustre and disappointing. The Ceremonies would not have made much sense to the stadium spectator and the billion people watching at home.
In late-2011, famed film director and London 2012 Ceremonies Director Danny Boyle was able to convince British Prime Minister David Cameron to double the budget for London 2012’s Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Like Atkins, Boyle [rightly] believed his theatrical vision and Britain’s global image will greatly suffer without further Ceremonies funding towards the sets and technical equipment required to stage the two shows.
London organizers originally budgeted $63-million for Boyle’s shows; for anyone familiar with the high costs of the British Isles, like Vancouver’s original $40-million the original $63-million for London’s Opening and Closing Ceremonies would proof to be grossly insufficient. For Vancouver’s Ceremonies, it could arguably have used a $60-million budget to deliver a flawless and consistently impressive spectacle.
Quoted below, London 2012 CEO Paul Deighton explains the case behind the increase of London’s Olympic Ceremonies budget from $63-million to $126-million (from Around the Rings):
“Ceremonies do require a judgement call in terms of investment as the global audience and scale of the opportunity are far greater than the operational need. The Government has chosen to make this investment because they believe there will be a substantial return to tourism and business legacy and we will continue to work hard to deliver…ceremonies which showcase the UK to the world in the best possible way.”
Arguably, officials at VANOC, the provincial and federal governments did not have this same mindset over the importance of the Olympic Ceremonies. There is no greater symbolism to this than the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron when one of the four mechanical arms failed to rise, leaving Catriona Lemay Doan standing alone with nothing light.
SOCHI 2014: THE WINTER GAMES EQUIVALENT OF BEIJING 2008
The Canadian federal government did not see Vancouver 2010 as the national priority the same way the British government saw London 2012, the Chinese government for Beijing 2008, and the Russian government for the upcoming Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. However, the 2010 Games were certainly of utmost importance to former Premier Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals. The Winter Games drove local public policy for seven years.
If you thought British Columbia’s policies and commitments to support the Vancouver 2010 Games were excessive, you should take a look at what Russian President Vladamir Putin has done to deliver his Sochi 2014 dream. This is the true meaning of extravagance.
Vladamir Putin hopes the Sochi 2014 Games will do for Russia what Beijing 2008 did for China. 2014 is also an important milestone for the year, as it will also mark the 25th anniversary of the new, modern Russia and the beginning of a decade of big sporting events from the arrival of Formula 1 beginning next year in Sochi to the country’s role as the host of the FIFA 2018 World Cup. Altogether, this is part of Putin’s vision to reinvent Russia’s image on the global stage.
It is also Putin’s grand vision to transform Sochi, the tiny summer Black Sea resort town (that grew from humble beginnings as Joseph Stalin’s cottage getaway), into an all-season, international sports playground. The region has a population of just 350,000, it has just one main road, and no ski resorts.
To accomplish this feat of transforming itself into an international destination and a city ready to host the Winter Games, efforts have so far reached $51-billion, costing more than the Beijing 2008 Summer Games and making Sochi 2014 the most expensive Olympic Games in history.
About 85 per cent of what Sochi needs for its Winter Games needs to be built from scratch. This includes the construction of hotels and housing for the athletes, media, visitors, staff, and even volunteers as well as major shopping malls and retail districts. In the mountains where no development existed just years before, Sochi has built a major alpine ski resort for all the skiing and sliding (luge, bobsleigh, skeleton) competitions to take place. The resort also includes 10 major hotels and an Olympic Village for athletes competing in the snow sports in the mountains. To put this in perspective, imagine having to build Cypress Mountain and Whistler overnight.
Down in the city along the waterfront, a massive Olympic Park has been built almost overnight and is home to all the stadiums that will host the indoor competitions (ice hockey, figure skating, short-track, speed skating, and curling), a 40,000-seat outdoor Olympic Stadium, a Victory Ceremonies Plaza, the main Olympic Village, the International Broadcast Centre and Main Press Centre. Putin has also spared no expense either with building aesthetically pleasing, world-class “starchitect” building designs.
Construction undergoing at Sochi Olympic Park. The 40,000-seat Olympic Stadium is on the right.
Photo credit: SC-OS
The completed Iceberg Skating Palace at Sochi Olympic Park, home to figure skating and short-track speed skating competitions.
Photo credit: Sochi 2014
Entire large networks of highways and mountain expressway tunnels have been built specifically for the Games. More impressive is the construction of three comprehensive light metro lines over the last five years that will allow spectators to seamlessly travel between Sochi City Centre, Sochi Olympic Park, the mountain resort venue, the expanded major airport, and other major destinations in the city. Sochi has built its rail system overnight, a feat marked by an impressive track length totaling 86.4-kms servicing 24 stations. This does not include a network of high-speed rail lines that not only link Sochi to the rest of Russia but also link Sochi Olympic Park with the new mountain resort in merely 25-minutes.
Sochi could also very well be hosting the second consecutive “Spring” Olympics. It has a subtropical climate – palm trees are aplenty along its Baltic Sea coastline. There are deep concerns that a warm spell next winter could hamper skiing competitions, fears of a repeat of the embarrassing snow shortage at Cypress Mountain which affected Vancouver’s freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. Sochi organizers have taken a page from VANOC and have already begun to stockpile massive volumes of snow on mountain ice sheets for use next year. Russian organizers and Putin are devoting extensive resources to ensure these are a flawless Games, reputation means everything to them.
Although the media made it seem otherwise during their coverage of Vancouver 2010, weather issues are nothing new for the Winter Olympics. Adverse winter weather caused multi-day delays in alpine skiing events at Salt Lake and Torino. In Nagano 1998, events were interfered by frequent bouts of heavy rain and fog. Few also remember the notoriously warm Chinook Winds that blew into Calgary from the eastern side of Rocky Mountains during the 1988 Winter Games. These strong winds caused temperatures to rapidly increase by as much as 20 degrees Celcius within 2 hours during the initial arrival of the winds. Many sporting events were delayed or rescheduled due to blowing dust and dangerously strong winds, with downhill skiing, ski jumping, bobsled and luge experiencing the biggest setbacks. The strong Chinook Winds even sent a ski jumper flying into a camera tower before organizers decided to postpone competitions.
Vancouver organizers were compelled by the IOC and the international sporting federations responsible for bobsleigh, skeleton, and luge to build a fast, record-breaking track. After all, the Olympic Games are all about breaking new boundaries and records – to go faster, higher, and stronger. Citius, Altius, Fortius. What could possibly go wrong? Following the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Whistler Sliding Centre, Sochi organizers, the international sport federations, and the IOC decided to play it safe and build a much slower luge track.
Nodar’s death was not the first for the Winter Games nor will it be its last given the inherently dangerous nature of winter sports. During Calgary 1988, an Austrian team doctor collided with another skier and was knocked under a snow-grooming machine, crushing him instantly. At Albertville 1992, a speed skiing athlete died of his injuries when he collided with a snow-grooming machine during a practice run.
Putin has made every effort to ensure Sochi 2014 is a grand success. He has devoted much of his own time and attention away from state affairs to ensure preparations for the Games go smoothly. For Putin, there is zero room for error. There is also an urgency for the Russian leader to use the Winter Games to turn domestic attention away from stagnating economic growth in Russia and the populace’s growing discontent.
Terrorism is also a major and real concern for Sochi 2014. Sochi is located within a conflict zone, with the separatist and militant Caucasus republics nearby including Chechyna, Dagestan, and Abkhazia. The most recent and significant example is the 9-day long 2008 Russia-Georgia War: the conflict was located just 100-kms away from Sochi. Georgia initiated a major offensive against South Ossetia in an attempt to reclaim the territory, and in response the Russian military moved in to support and defend South Ossetia. The war began on the morning of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony on August 8, killed more than 2,000 people and displaced 150,000 from their homes. It is expected that there will be a very strong and visual security presence during the Sochi Games, in addition to the likelihood that many spectators at the competitions and events will be armed, plainclothes police officers.
The costs for the Sochi 2014 Games have risen to $51-billion – up from the original bid estimate of $12-billion. The Russian state is covering half the costs, while Putin’s rich oligarch friends covers the rest. State-owned corporations like Gazprom, which Putin runs like a CEO, and Rosneft have been responsible for constructing many of Sochi’s Olympic venues and infrastructure.
Considering $51-billion is being invested into a small, seaside resort town of just 350,000 people, there is no question that Sochi 2014 will be the grandest and most extravagant Olympic Games yet. Construction costs are also much lower in Russia – a dollar there gets you much more in Sochi than what you would otherwise get in Vancouver. Russian Olympic organizers have built a brand new starchitect and FIFA-certified 40,000-seat football stadium for the 2014 Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies for just $63.5-million. In sharp contrast, VANOC’s new and modestly designed 6,000-seat ice hockey arena at the UBC Thunderbird Sports Centre cost $47.8-million alone.
Sochi will also likely have lavish and spellbinding Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies, shows that could possibly “achieve the impossible” and accomplish the feat of matching Beijing 2008’s Ceremonies in both extravagance and scale.
However, will Russians embrace Sochi 2014 just as warmly Canadians did for Vancouver 2010? Will there be a positive and sustainable post-Games legacy in Sochi, just like the legacy of Vancouver? For both questions, the answers are highly doubtful.
When I think of Sochi 2014’s venue and infrastructural legacy, I think of “white elephants.” In other words, the complete opposite of Vancouver 2010’s sustainable legacy.
Also read this Vancity Buzz Special Exclusive Series: an in-depth analysis on what it would take for Metro Vancouver to host the ultimate global sporting event – the Summer Olympic Games:
- PART 1 – Vancouver Summer Games: Accommodation, Transportation, Airport, Olympic Village, Media, Labour and Security
- PART 2 – Vancouver Summer Games: Building Sustainable Venues and the Location of Potential Sports Venues and Stadiums
Featured image credit: s.yume