Not All Fun and Games: The Hidden Costs of the Olympics
by Jennifer Karchmer
Editor’s Note: Independent journalist Jennifer Karchmer, based in Bellingham, traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to cover the Winter Olympic Games from Feb. 16-22, 2010.
With 20 years in the news business, I used my media network to secure press credentials at the Main Press Centre (MPC) in downtown Vancouver where NBC and members of accredited news outlets had all the tools to “get the story.”
In a huge room decked out with rows of workstations, I had a nice space to spread out and write on my laptop. TV monitors lined the work area and I checked event results and athlete bios at special terminals sprinkled around the room.
The MPC is a huge multilevel convention center complete with food court (McDonalds and some other healthy fare). When I needed a box of tissues and a few postcards to send to the family, I went to the retail store down the hall, which featured official Olympics merchandise. When my camera battery unexpectedly died, an Olympics volunteer introduced me to the “battery recharger station,” which got me up and running again in 20 minutes. The fresh battery was care of the free station, presented by Samsung, an official Olympic sponsor.
With my press badge necklace prominently displayed around my neck, I explored the upstairs where I came across a darkened room with candles flickering. Weary members of the press were signing up for free 15-minute massages thanks to the hands of massage therapy students.
Down the hall, large rooms featured press conferences where I interviewed U.S. speed skater Shani Davis and, an hour later, U.S. short track skater Apolo Ohno, each after they had won their Olympic medals. A larger, more technically souped-up press room accommodated an afternoon press conference for the Japanese women’s figure skating team. Through the use of an interpreter, I asked the athletes about their training regimen and how they were acclimating to Canada.
Another Side of the City
Just a 10-minute walk from the media-frenzied MPC lies an area devoid of athlete sightings and the ubiquitous Olympic red mittens for sale. On one street corner a blanket is draped over what appears to be the body of a man who died the night before. Slumped out of a wheelchair and lying on the sidewalk, the body is taken care of by two city workers.
Beset with homelessness and extreme poverty, this is Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, home to some of the “poorest postal codes in all of Canada,” according to Elaine Durocher, who was homeless herself two years ago. Today, she is an organizer of the “Olympic Tent Village,” where homeless people and other supporters have assembled on a vacant gravel lot slated to become high-rise condominiums after the games leave town.
At a coffee shop a few blocks from the tent city, I interview Harjap Grewal, an organizer with the Olympic Resistance Network (ORN). We talk about past Olympics and how 34 years later, Montreal is just getting into the black after the debt it incurred as host of the 1976 Games. From a social standpoint, Grewal said, the Olympics are more about commercialism, consumerism and greed rather than peace, hope and athletics.
The Olympic Resistance Network, based in Vancouver, is against the Olympics as an industry, because of the focus on branding, merchandise and corporate sponsorship.
“The primary sort of drivers are the corporations,” Grewal said of the Olympics. “It’s not the small town sports communities that do the inviting. It doesn’t really represent sports at all.”
In his early 30s, Grewap said he is an active guy. In fact, he credits his seventh grade teacher for instilling his interest in physical education (his favorites are basketball, rugby and running).
Working in the eastside for the nonprofit Council of Canadians, Grewal is somewhat removed from the crowds, tourists and Olympic hoopla but not totally oblivious of people donned in red and white with maple leaf face paint chanting “Go Canada Go!”
“It does disgust me,” Grewal said, referring to the Olympic merchandise enticing further consumerism. “I think people don’t recognize the indigenous people of this country. It does shock me the nationalism that’s promoted by the games. Nationalism is what launched the war in Iraq. Instead, people need to promote community empowerment.”
ORN is run by volunteers, has a Web site, and has staged protests and spoken out since Vancouver received the bid. Grewal said he hopes people will think more critically about how the massive influx of people affects the host city and society in general.
The next Olympic Games are slated for London in 2012.
“In future games, we hope they challenge the games as an institution,” Grewal said. §