No Fun Olympics?

Rain-Soaked Olympic Rings in Vancouver

Last summer, in the face of the fabulously successful Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, I raised the question: Could India host an impressive Olympics? With the Winter Games now a scant two weeks away, that same question must be asked of Vancouver. Though I write this from my Vancouver home, I cannot say that I have a clue what the answer might be.

I assume than the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC) has the infrastructure and logistical matters well taken care of. I’m sure the events will go-off in decent venues, visitors will find themselves well accommodated and transported, and that they’ll even overcome the snow shortage occasioned by the rotten luck of an Olympic year El Niño in the Pacific. But will it be any fun?

For the record, I’m not talking about the stupidity of holding the Winter Games in a coastal, temperate climate, where precipitation comes as dour rain, rather than festive snow. I’m wondering about Vancouver’s fundamental ability to throw a party.

I’m not sure what things are looking like up in Whistler these days, but you wouldn’t know that the world was set to arrive here in a fortnight by taking a spin around Vancouver. Other than the illuminated Olympic rings on the drive out of the airport – which are less elaborate than an average display of Christmas lights on a suburban tract house – and the Omega count-down-the-seconds-to-the-start-of-the-games clock standing in the forecourt the Vancouver Art Gallery, it is difficult to tell that the Olympics are happening at all, much less right here. Apparently, a higher-tech version of the illuminated rings can be found in Coal Harbor, and maybe someone other than the passing cruise ship passengers has actually seen them. This utterly brilliant 18 second YouTube video, from which I created the photo above, may be the perfect cinematic commentary on the Vancouver 2010 Games.

Sure, road closures around BC Place Stadium (site of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies) have just gone into effect, and its nearby parking lots are beginning to see erection of temporary tenting. But nothing about this is particularly convincing. To begin with, BC Place is as non-festive a venue as one can imagine outside of, say, Albania. Nor are the scores of small, as-yet-undecorated, white vinyl tents particularly impressive, seemingly more suited to housing refugees than celebrations. With the city’s large Indian community, you’d think they could manage at least a decent-sized wedding shamiana. It looks more like the city is setting up for a small crafts fair or farmers’ market than preparing to host a multi-gazilion dollar international party.

My sister puts more thought into Tenzing’s birthday parties than VANOC seems to be putting into the Winter Games. But this is, sadly, not unprecedented.

For a city in which so many seem to be so genuinely happy so much of the time, Vancouver is also duly famous for its lack of a party spirit, earning itself the nickname “No Fun City.” There was a time, it seems, when Vancouver was a vibrant, vital cultural scene, giving rise to important music and visual arts movements. Those days are nearly two-decades past, with small venues shuttered, one after another.

Over time, the growth of the regulatory systems that govern the use and safety of live performance spaces has resulted in a complex structure that is not always consistently applied, up to date or harmonized with other regulatory systems. As a result, rather than enabling the sustainable creation and operation of live performance venues, the City’s regulatory environment often creates barriers that result in significant restrictions on the dynamic nature of this sector. This includes forcing live performance venues underground ― operating outside of the regulatory systems, driving them into inappropriate neighbourhoods and/or forcing them outside the city altogether.

That opinion comes courtesy of the City of Vancouver itself, in a recently published Administrative Report on Regulatory Review for Live Performance Venues.

This is both a metaphor for, and directly germane to the likely Olympic experience. Vancouver is, generally speaking, not a hopping town. And what entertainment exists has been zoned into a tawdry, downtown, few-block length of Granville Street. The operators of the clubs, theaters, and concert halls there have had tremendous influence on the City Council to prevent entertainment from proliferating beyond this tiny, carefully circumscribed area and into the neighborhoods or the broader downtown area. Not coincidentally, Granville Street will the site of a three-block pedestrian mall during the Olympics – and one of only four substantial loci of reverie within of Vancouver.

While popular culture and festivity has been generally squashed here, the city typically does a nice job of small and medium sized “special events” – things like the annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Vancouver International Film Festival, Vancouver International Fireworks Competition, and various community events. On the night of the winter solstice, for example, the Roundhouse Community Centre held a wonderful “lantern festival”, with performance art, music, and a pretty spectacular labyrinth constructed of paper-bag-and-votive-candle lamps. Vancouver also does “high art” reasonably well, with terrific museums like the Vancouver Art Gallery and Museum of Anthropology. If VANOC taps into some of this tradition, the celebrations might at least be decorous and attractive, if slightly staid and inhibited.

Perhaps all is to be revealed in the moment, like a magician’s trick, once the Olympic torch and tens of thousands of visitors have made their way to town. I’m told these things take on a life of their own. In Salt Lake City, which hosted the Winter Games in 2002, scandal, protest, and general disaffection were the order of the day until things got underway; thereafter, the revelry was epic. On present evidence, it looks like Vancouver’s reputation for knowing how to throw a party is about to get its ass kicked by a bunch of Mormons.


2 Responses to “No Fun Olympics?”

  1. 1 millyonair 8 February 2010 at 5:24 pm

    Well, at least YOU’RE there to liven it up a bit! You should get yourself another pair of paint-pants and show ’em how the international set parties….

  2. 2 Another Artist 16 February 2010 at 11:39 pm

    Yes, more paint-pants is a great idea for showing some … spirit!! Go for it.

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