After years of lies about the 2010 Winter Olympics and the prosperity they will bring to the city, province, and country, it’s no surprise that workers are a bit perplexed by the way things are really panning out. Despite promises of economic windfall, the games were wildly unpopular from the very beginning of the bidding process. Now, in the face of world economic crisis and a teetering housing market, the Olympics are projected to be almost $1 billion over budget (Vancouver Sun, 15 Nov. 2008). On top of this spending, the city is apparently negotiating a no-longer-secret deal to bail out the developers and financiers of the Athletes’ Village, and who also own the Whistler/Blackcomb ski resort (also skirting bankruptcy), where much of the 2010 Winter Games will take place. This deal stands to cost the public purse an additional $100 million, and now we are being told by the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC) that businesses ought to shut down and send their employees on mandatory vacations during the two weeks of the games – to ease traffic congestion. It’s difficult to imagine how this could possibly jumpstart the economy and be good for small business.
The idea of an Olympic bid was not overwhelmingly popular among Vancouverites. While former mayor Larry Campbell supported the Olympics, it was his promise of a referendum to decide the matter that swept him to power with a landslide victory in 2002—that, and the promise to turn the infamous vacant Woodward’s building into social housing, right in the heart of the downtown eastside where it is needed most. The referendum (actually a non-binding plebiscite) took place on 22 Feb. 2003 and came through 64 per cent in favour of the Olympics. This is not such a surprise considering the pro-Olympic campaign outspent the anti-Olympic campaign by a ratio if 88:1 (2010 Winter Olympics, www.wikipedia.org).
Larry Campbell is known for a number things, including the fantastic television drama DaVinci’s Inquest (based on his experience as Vancouver’s coroner from 1981 to 1996), and for splitting Vancouver’s left municipal party, the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), in 2005. As Mayor, he sold the Woodward’s building to developers and did very little to address poverty on the downtown eastside. He did open the country’s first and only safe injection site; but, as a former cop, he is better known by drug-users and prostitutes for increasing police presence in the neighbourhood. His out-and-out betrayal on the issue of the Woodward’s building and his affinity for the notoriously corrupt Vancouver Police Department justifiably repelled his base. No surprise, his new small-l liberal party, Vision Vancouver, was unable to mobilize the same mass support in the following 2005 municipal elections and the right-wing Non-Partisan Association (NPA) took the mayoral seat with the usual low voter turnout. In return for his sell-out, Campbell was rewarded with a seat in the big-L Liberal senate, and thus apparently deserves the title “Honourable”.
In normal times, hosting the Olympics can be good for developers, but it is never good for small business and definitely not good for the public purse. The 2004 Athens Summer Olympics are a case in point. Georgios Alogoskoufis, Greece’s right-wing Christian Democrat Finance Minister, was either overly optimistic or lying—twice—when he adjusted cost estimates from 4.6 billion euros to 8.95 billion euros after the fact, and then again to 11 billion euros (Southeast European Times, 19 Nov 2004). According to the Greek Embassy’s website, only 1.752 billion euros were raised from investors, ticket sales, etc., and the remainder was footed by the state. We can only guess what the final bill for the Vancouver Olympics will look like.
Besides, these are not normal times. Your average worker now knows that Canada is in recession, along with the United States. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty finally admitted to Parliament last month that recession was not only a possibility, but that “we may be in a technical recession” (Financial Post, 24 Nov 2008). 70,600 Canadian jobs were lost in the month of November alone, proportionally comparable to the half million lost that same month in the United States (Globe and Mail, 5 Dec 2008). Meanwhile, the big three auto makers are threatening to close down if they are not bailed out by governments in the US and Canada. While it is estimated that one in ten jobs is directly or indirectly linked to auto manufacturing in the US, it is possible that the number is closer to one in seven in Canada because of our larger parts industry and the resource extraction to fuel it (CTV News, 25 Nov 2008). Whether the bail-out packages currently being debated go through or not, they are intended to prop up the big three only until March 2009, while we know that this is only the beginning of a world economic crisis unlike capitalism has ever seen before.
Ironically, one of the Olympics’ largest corporate sponsors is supposed to be General Motors. They have committed to contribute $14 million cash and $53 million in cars, marketing and services. In November, GM was assuring that they were committed to the Olympics “no matter what.” Their financial commitments to the Olympics now seem absurd in the face of recent news that they are shutting down all North American operations for the month of January, and then what? Apparently GM isn’t the only Olympic sponsor in serious economic trouble, and only 40 per cent of promised cash and donations have come in (The Canadian Press, 15 Dec 2008). According to Dave Cobb, VANOC’s vice-president of revenue and marketing, all the payments are on time, so there’s no reason to worry. This is coming from a fellow who has decided to “hold out” looking for the two final international sponsors “until market conditions stabilize”. This doesn’t sound like a wise move; he might be holding out for a very long time.
British Columbia, and Greater Vancouver in particular, stand to be hit hard by plummeting consumer spending and the bursting housing bubble. The vast majority of low-cost consumer goods flowing into Canada from China have come through the Port of Vancouver, bolstering the city’s booming shipping and warehousing industries. As spending slows and lending decreases, there will be less traffic through the ports and less work for dockworkers, warehousers, and shippers.
At the same time, housing values have arguably been more artificially inflated in Vancouver than anywhere else in Canada. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver’s November 2008 market summary, the benchmark price for a home in Greater Vancouver is down 12 per cent in the last six months, at $495,000 compared to $560,000 in May. Of course, prices are expected to decline further, which means that many households will owe more in their mortgage than their home is worth—not a good situation to be in.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 British Columbians are employed in the construction industry. With housing sales down 69 per cent in November 2008 compared to November 2007 and housing starts also beginning to decrease, we can expect many of these workers to find themselves without work very shortly. Worse, nearly one in three construction workers are youth (The Vancouver Sun, 18 Dec 2008) and it is an industry made up of “self-employed” contractors and sub-contractors who are not technically employees, do not have employment rights, and do not qualify for employment insurance. These big earners, who are accustomed to being big spenders, will find themselves without any kind of safety net to fall on. This is the economic context in which we are spending billions of dollars to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Housing and homelessness
Much of the opposition to hosting the 2010 games has been framed in light of growing poverty, homelessness, and a general housing crisis in Vancouver. While the cost of purchasing a home has been soaring on the basis of speculation, the need for affordable rental housing is very real. Rents in Vancouver are higher than many fully-employed people can afford, let alone the unemployed and under-employed. Whether it’s a decent bachelor pad or a rundown two-bedroom basement suite, you won’t find anything legal for less than $1000. This is frightening when minimum wage is still stuck at $8 per hour and many full-time workers are netting less than this amount each month. Meanwhile, homeless rates are through the roof. The 2008 Metro Vancouver Homeless count, which took place on 11th March, found an astonishing 2,660 people sleeping without shelter, on the street – a 373% increase since 2002 (The Province, 17 Sep. 2008).
When Vancouver hosted the World’s Fair in 1986, 500 residents were forcibly evicted from the downtown eastside so that their low-income housing could be turned into high-end hotels for tourists. There is legitimate fear that this is happening again, and even without the Olympics, the housing boom has prompted landlords to cash in. The owners of many single resident occupancy hotels (SROs) have already sold their buildings at high rates to condo developers set on gentrifying Canada’s poorest neighbourhood. Housing and anti-poverty advocates have been protesting the Olympics on the basis that we need to spend on social housing before committing billions to a big fancy international spectacle (that nobody can afford to attend anyway). At the time of the bid, federal, provincial, and municipal governments responded to opposition by pledging that nobody would be homeless because of the games and that resources would be committed to developing new social housing. While the city is committing money on paper, SRO rooms are closing at a rate faster than they are being replaced.
“Business as usual”
The capitalists and their representatives in government are fond of telling us that there is no money to spend on frivolous things like social housing, but somehow they are able to funnel billions of dollars into their friends’ pockets (and their own) at the drop of a hat. Around the world, financial institutions and corporate giants continue to be rewarded for their negligence and collective mismanagement, to the tune of trillions of dollars in government bailouts.
Vancouver City Council found itself caught up in a bail-out scandal of its own in November. Just days before a municipal election, it was leaked to the media that the city was secretly negotiating a $100 million deal to bail out Fortress Investment Group—the main financial backer for Millennium Development Corp. who are building the 1,000-unit Athlete’s Village. What wasn’t as widely publicized is the fact that the city had already doled out $190 million to Fortress as a loan guarantee. Both municipal parties took the bait and diverted all of their publicity and campaigning efforts to slandering the mystery councilor who leaked the document and reiterating to the public that “these sorts of real estate deals must take place behind closed doors”. What the public really cared about, however, was that the city would consider handing over such a large amount to a near-bankrupt development corporation while we are witnessing increasing homelessness, poverty, and addiction. As is the case with all public-private partnerships, the public investment in the Athlete’s Village will reap rewards only for the private investors—Millennium Corp. and Fortress. The “leaked document” scandal was, of course, a red herring to divert pre-election attention away from the questionable allocation of municipal funds and the larger homelessness issue. Not surprisingly, was haven’t heard a word about it since the November 15th election.
Adding insult to injury, VANOC CEO John Furlong announced in mid-November that everybody ought to be making a contribution to reduce traffic during the games. He suggested that businesses adjust schedules, shut down or send their employees on mandatory vacation for these two weeks. To quote an unlikely source, “it’s not going to be business as usual” says Virginia Green, president of the Business Council of BC (The Vancouver Sun, 13 Nov 2008, www.canada.com). Industrious Vancouverites can’t even hope to make a quick buck turning over tickets for a profit, as VANOC has promised to crack down on scalpers. It has become blatantly obvious—with high ticket prices and lotteries for the most popular events—that very few of Vancouver’s residents will actually benefit from the games, while we will all be inconvenienced. Whether we’re forced on unpaid vacation, stuck in traffic because of rerouting, or forced out of business altogether, we will all be hit in the next few years while we’re stuck footing the bill for the 2010 Olympics.
There is growing disillusionment with the games. As the effects of the economic crisis hit home this holiday season, Olympic spirit is waning. This process will be accelerated in the coming period and we can expect swift changes in consciousness among ordinary Canadians. The excessive and frivolous expenditure on the games will become more and more offensive and their unpopularity will only increase. The 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics are set to be a disaster; or, to use a very Canadian expression, they are going to be a complete gong show.