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Countdown to 2010

October 20, 2009  By Paul Dixon

August 12th was celebrated in Vancouver as “only six months until the Olympics” or as John Furlong, the VANOC CEO put it, “only 25 more Mondays.”

August 12th was celebrated in Vancouver as “only six months until the Olympics” or as John Furlong, the VANOC CEO put it, “only 25 more Mondays.” Like a long train coming, after years of hype and hyperbole (good, bad and otherwise) we can finally hear the distant rumble. Then with much clanging, banging, ringing of bell, tooting of horn, and a blaze of light it will be here and then in the next instant, gone, nothing more than a clickety-clack fading into the darkness.
Six months out and VANOC is now acknowledging the “tough economy and challenging market conditions” and feeling the impact in many ways. Corporate dollars are harder to come by. While ticket sales in general have been strong for events, many high-end packages and corporate suites remain unsold. This year’s Calgary Stampede was an indicator of the tightening corporate purses as many longstanding, corporately sponsored events were much smaller than in previous years.
On a positive note, Nike signed on as a major sponsor enabling VANOC to announce they have now met their major sponsorship goals. On the other side of the Olympic coin, all outdoor advertising in Greater Vancouver was bought up by VANOC for the period preceding and during the Olympics. The idea being that VANOC would resell the space to Olympic sponsors at a profit. It would also preclude companies that are not part of the Olympics from mounting advertising campaigns and would also preclude any anti-Olympic advertising. To date VANOC is stuck with $12 million dollars worth of space and no takers.
The competition venues have been completed and many of them have been tested under competition conditions. While VANOC was responsible for approximately $600 million worth of construction costs, much of the financial burden has been borne by local governments and the provincial government, both directly and through crown corporations and semi-independent bodies such as Translink. Mega projects such as the Vancouver Convention Centre, Sea To Sky Highway and the new rapid transit line connecting Vancouver International Airport to the downtown core have cost more than $4 billion. Counting these projects as part of the overall bill for the Olympics depends on your point of view.

The biggest booster for the Olympics from the outset has been the government of British Columbia, consistently promoting the games as a benefit to the entire province, though most Olympic-related activities will take place within metro Vancouver and Whistler. The billions of dollars in infrastructure development have been driven by the Olympic timeline, but the payment schedule has largely been put off against future government income. Not much different from any small business operator making spending decisions for today based on projected future revenues.

The problem for the provincial government is a sudden and drastic reversal in the projected future revenues based on today’s economic reality. From healthy budget surpluses as recently as two years ago, to a modest deficit in the budget delivered in the first quarter of this year, the government is now faced with a revenue shortfall of almost three billion dollars in the second quarter of 2009 from a combination of plunging tax revenues and resource royalties. Compounding the problem is the unforeseen expense of the 2009 fire season, $400 million and climbing rapidly (from a budgeted $62 million) as more than 420 helicopters and thousands of firefighters have been fully engaged in a season that started earlier than ever and promises to burn well into the autumn as record temperatures and low rainfall have been the order of the day. Even Whistler was on the frontline as a wildfire sparked by lightning on Blackcombe Mountain in late July quickly grew to 20 hectares and forced the evacuation of both Blackcombe and Whistler mountains. Only quick action by helicopters diverted from fires already burning to the north of Whistler prevented the fire from damaging infrastructure on the mountain or threatening the town of Whistler below.

We can’t control the weather and we seemingly can’t do much about the economic factors either. What the legacy of these Games will be remains to be seen and is very much in the eye of the beholder. At this date there is nothing to be gained by lamenting what might have been done to boost commercial aviation in the region. We’ll let Whistler Fire Chief Rob Whitton have the last word. When asked what he hoped for as an Olympic legacy, he said, “I just want everyone who comes to have a good time and get home safely.”


Paul Dixon is a freelance photojournalist living in North Vancouver.


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