02.17.10

Will Vancouver Avoid the Olympic Curse?

Canadians are full of pride even after ridicule and weather worthy of a so-called Spring Olympics. Verena von Pfetten reports on whether Vancouver will think it was worth the $11.6 billion.

The sidewalks of downtown Vancouver are awash in a sea of red, drivers honk as they pass flags hoisted by their compatriots, and children smile with chubby, maple leaf-painted cheeks.

It's Day 5 of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Vancouverites are celebrating.

But celebrating what, exactly?

The city has spent $11.6 billion in preparation for the games, including an estimated $60 million on the opening and closing ceremonies alone. Canada is ranked a distant seventh in all-time Winter Olympic medals won so far, and the downtown east side has been plagued by black-masked and glass-smashing protesters.

Olympically inspired Canadians are celebrating their games and their country with impromptu and heartfelt performances of the national anthem on crowded downtown streets.

And yet every night thus far has seen Vancouver's Robson Street clogged with thousands of Canadian revelers. On Saturday, crowds thronged in honor of 2006 Torino gold medalist Jenn Heil's silver win, and on Sunday locals cheered like they'd won the Super Bowl after men's mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau was the first Canadian ever to win a gold medal on home soil. But how long will the excitement last?

Bryan Curtis: Down With Downhill Skiing!

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In the past, host cities have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in addition to their pride and integrity under the scrutiny of the global community. NPR's Howard Berkes said it best:

"It took the city of Montreal 30 years to pay off the billion-dollar debt it incurred during the 1976 games. Olympic costs for Athens more than tripled to more than $15 billion. Nagano, Japan, spent so much for the 1998 Winter Games, and triggered so much suspicion with its spending, that Olympic organizers destroyed their financial records. Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Games were marred by the worst ethics scandal in Olympic history. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta are known in Olympic circles as the tackiest games ever."

This year, Vancouver is grappling with a global economy in the grip of a crippling recession, as well as a Winter Games audience that has been on the steady decline since 1994.

But even in the face of such historical and contemporary adversity, Vancouverites—and Canadians as a whole—have come out en masse to bathe in the international spotlight. Because, really, that is what being an Olympics host city is all about.

The list of non-monetary Olympiad-hosting benefits usually leads with marketing and tourism, followed by a heavy dose of civic pride. But in Vancouver's case, the hosting duties offer this city the unique opportunity to define itself and its fellow citizens to a worldwide audience.

Vancouver is typically recognized as a beautiful city, consistently squashed between some ranking variation of Sydney, Geneva, and Zurich as the best place to live in the world. There's also Whistler/Blackcomb, the proximity of which is arguably the entire reason Vancouver landed the games in the first place.

And now, the residents of this fine city get to revel in the validation hosting is supposed to bestow—despite the fact that unseasonably warm weather has given Vancouver's games the unfortunate honor of being dubbed the first " Spring Olympics."

Which prompts the question: Will Vancouver be happy with its new international identity?

While the opening ceremonies were largely praised for being an accurate and contemporary portrayal of modern Canada, the Internet takeaway was less nuanced—which is to say: How many Canadians does it take to light an Olympic torch?

(But how very Canadian to have four disparate and all-star athletes to light the famed flame! Any less would have been positively unsportsmanlike. Even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper preemptively apologized for any "uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism and pride," as if the desire to win were by international definition un-Canadian.)

Add to that the untimely death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and the refunding of some 20,000 tickets due to weather issues and, naturally, the international press has already begun to weigh in on what is being described as a "problem-filled" and "gaffe-laden" opening week.

But in spite of all this, Olympically inspired Canadians have been seen breaking into spontaneous song, celebrating their games and their country with impromptu and heartfelt performances of the national anthem on crowded downtown streets.

True Patriot Love from lululemon athletica on Vimeo

Tuesday, Canadian snowboarder Maelle Ricker overcame a first-round fall to win her country's second gold of the games—placing Canada fourth overall—while so far both sexes' hockey teams have been smoking the competitors.

So although Vancouver is on track for the Olympic first of selling every one of the 1.6 million event tickets, the jury is still out on whether it will follow in the footsteps of its fellow host-cities' mind-boggling debt and subsequent disgrace.

In the meantime, one thing is for sure: The Canadian people are doing their darndest to stay positive. And that's Olympic optimism at its best.

Verena von Pfetten is a freelance writer who has covered entertainment, style and pop culture for Jezebel, Scanner, and Yahoo!, among others. She was formerly the Living editor at The Huffington Post and Senior Editor at Air America. She twitters sporadically here.