The Olympics tent has packed up and gone home, but another tent city remains in Vancouver as a symbol of abject poverty and disadvantage. Will they get the dividend of the past two weeks of celebration?
It didn’t start well, with the death of a competitor and an unseasonal warm winter keeping the snow away. But talk to the average Canadian and they will tell the 2010 Winter Olympics went swimmingly and ended perfectly with their nation defeating arch rival the US in the ice hockey final on the last day of events.
But now the party is over and its back to the routine business of daily life for Vancouverites. Streets, which last week had hundreds of thousands thronging them, are decidedly quiet in comparison. And the British Columbia government handed down a Budget yesterday that put this rich province in the red for at least another three years, probably longer.
When the posters, flags, banners and installations that festoon the airport, the downtown and the city’s majestic waterfront are packed up and sent to museums and sports clubs to be raffled off in fundraisers, what will this two-week global networking and entertainment extravaganza have done for one of the world’s most livable cities in the long term?
It is an important, and in some senses the only question, that matters. Because as we saw in the case of Sydney the diversion of taxpayer-funded resources and infrastructure into staging the Olympics, winter or summer, is an undertaking of a scope and size that cries out for what Paul Keating called the "citizen’s dividend".
In the case of Sydney -- and it’s a neat comparison to make, not only because of the strong presence of former Sydney Olympics heavies such as Ignatius Jones, Merryn Hughes and David Atkins in the Vancouver Games event planning, but also because each city confronts the same sort of demographic, economic and social challenges -- it is almost impossible to sensibly argue there was such a dividend. In fact, goes the joke, there is simply a misty-eyed memory of those two weeks in September 2000 for when the trains actually ran on time.
In particular, it is fair to ask whether or not low income earners, the homeless and those living with mental illness will get any dividend from the Vancouver spending spree. After all, the Olympics is supposedly about peace, harmony and equality.
Vancouver’s appalling underbelly -- the lower east side -- is still there and cars filled with wealthy spectators sped through it each day as they were chauffeured to events. When they looked out their tinted windows the passers by saw the victims of a society that cares but does not care enough.
But they would also have seen a hastily erected tent city in a vacant developer’s lot. The brainwave of a coalition of anti-poverty groups that wanted to use the :five minutes" of international media attention on this gleaming, rapidly growing city to get a better deal for the thousands of Vancouverites who are homeless, this piece of direct action politics has had some positive impact. The Vancouver Sun reported
on Tuesday that 35 homeless people who had been housed in the tent city during the Games would now get housing. That just leaves about 1000 to go, according to the tent city organisers.
And even the Games’ patrons, such as Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, are cautious about the longer-term positive impact of his city’s spending on the Games. "Hopefully the net result will be positive, but that will take time to assess," Robertson told the media this week.
One would hope the unprecedented level of scrutiny, courtesy of the Olympics, of Vancouver’s lower east side will focus his and other civic leaders’ minds on poverty reduction for more than the time it takes the last of the Games visitors to leave town.