In the run-up to the Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympics, much of the talk was about the lengths to which organisers were going to stage-manage the image of both these games and the host city itself. Concerned with what havoc or impressions anti-Olympic protestors might create, they were accused of being over-zealous in their attempts to stymie local criticism.
Now the games organisers are ducking more flak than they probably ever imagined. But their most formidable antagonists have proved not to be balaclava-clad anarchists, anti-poverty or native rights demonstrators. Three days after opening, it was British newspaper The Guardian speculating whether Vancouver would be remembered as “the world’s worst games”.
Things seemed so promising only a few weeks ago. Michael Ignatieff, leader of the opposition Liberal Party in parliament, looked forward to the Olympics as “the biggest branding opportunity a nation ever gets”. Prime Minister Stephen Harper intended to seize the Olympic moment by lobbying world leaders on Canada’s hopes to win a temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2011.
As branding opportunities go, however, this one has swiftly turned a little sour. Much of the foreign media attention given to the Vancouver-Whistler games so far has focused on the death of the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, and questions about the safety of the too-fast track on which he crashed.
Kumaritashvili’s death came only hours before an uneven opening ceremony that reached tingling highs during some of the choreographed spectacles, and when a barefoot k.d. lang sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. But more talked about was the refusal of one of the animatronic armatures designed as part of the Olympic flame to erect.
The criticisms have been particularly shrill from quarters of the British media, who are perhaps working off some anxieties of their own in advance of the 2012 summer Olympics in London. Some of their attacks have fudged the truth somewhat, and surely organisers have little control over the warm weather.
But if Canadians feel stung by the complaints, it’s also because many of them have been fair. The organisers’ gamble to use low-altitude Cypress Mountain as a venue for snowboarding, in a city familiar with mild winter temperatures, has resulted in 20,000 refunded tickets and the need to import 9,000 cubic metres of snow. Confusingly triggered starts undermined the fairness of two biathlon races. On Thursday 12 staff were discharged for allegedly bringing prostitutes onto a yacht requisitioned by games organisers.
Canadians are now not so sure that the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics will prove to be such a profitable branding opportunity in the end. From the outside it’s looking more like a branding nightmare, akin to a product recall.
Obviously, Vancouver organisers and politicians are not getting the affirmational coverage they had hoped for their city. The media is hardly talking about these being the “greenest” Olympic games ever, with the lowest carbon footprint. Nor is the media devoting time to fawning over the innovative design of the Richmond Oval, home to the long-track speed-skating events, even though it bested Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest stadium for an award of excellence from the Institution of Structural Engineers.
Journalists have rather focused on the truculence of the Oval’s ice-resurfacing machines. Vancouver may consistently top many global livability surveys (although not Monocle’s), but that’s proving far less interesting copy than an opening ceremony crowned with a malfunctioning Olympic torch that one British writer called an “ice penis”.
Enjoying the country’s rare moment in the spotlight has proved to be an elusive opiate for Canadians. So, after a few days of embarrassed hand wringing, they’ve now turned to simply focusing on the competitions. The opening of the men’s ice hockey on Tuesday was a heartening distraction, especially since many Canadians regard the Winter Olympics as the world’s top-flight hockey tournament with a bunch of superfluous seasonal events attached.
Vancouverites have started to relax and stop worrying about what everyone else thinks. After all, they wake up every day to some of the world’s most breathtaking urban views. The host committee may have let Vancouverites down, but the streets and mountain resorts are nevertheless packed with spirited celebrations not seen in the party-deprived Turin Games.
Even while enthusiastically reporting on the country’s athletes, Canadian media outlets haven’t shied away from holding organisers to account for the cock-ups. From putting the Olympic cauldron behind an ugly chain link fence, to the almost total omission of French during the opening ceremonies in an officially bilingual country, you already feel the Olympic coverage here will long outlast the games themselves.