Vancouver, British Columbia, hosted the XXI Winter Olympics in February 2010, to a cacophony of praise, both at home and around the world. During those two weeks, Canada set a new Winter Games record with 14 gold medals, and in doing so became the first host nation to lead the gold medal count since Norway in 1952. Good stuff, eh! As I prepared to visit the city this summer, I was very curious to see whether the gold was still shining.
First, the numbers: 2,600 athletes from 82 nations participated in 86 events in 15 sports, continuing a recent Olympic trend of expanding each time around. Cayman Islands, Colombia, Ghana, Montenegro, Pakistan, Peru and Serbia all participated in the Winter Games for the first time ever. But it wasn’t all about the athletes. Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC, stated, “The way Vancouver embraced these Games was extraordinary. This is really something unique and has given a great atmosphere for these Games.”( Wilson, Stephen (March 1, 2010). “Vancouver atmosphere will be tough to match”. Associated Press.)
Internationally, competitively, and socially, these Games were a hit, but perhaps the biggest success of the winter came financially. Final audit figures reveal that the operational costs of the Games totaled $1.84 billion and came in right on budget—no surplus or deficit. The Games contributed $2.5 billion to Canada’s GDP, created 45,000 new jobs, accounted for $463 million in tourism, and led to construction projects totaling $1.22 billion. The Vancouver Olympic Committee spent $603 million to upgrade and build facilities for the Games, $580 million of which came from taxpayers. All the venues were ready on budget and at least one year in advance. This was one well-run financial endeavor.
Of course, not all Olympics have turned out so well financially. In 2006, the Games in Turin resulted in a $32 million deficit (only 2% of their operating budget, so not bad). In 2002, while the Salt Lake Olympic Committee ended the Games with a $40 million surplus, most of that was because the U.S. government contributed $1.3 billion of taxpayer money to the effort. The 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens officially generated a $166 million surplus, but only after the Greek government contributed billions to the construction of new venues, debt still being paid off.
But even if official financial results are positive, host countries are often criticized for committing huge dollars to the construction or renovation of athletic facilities, and perhaps justifiably so. Problems with reusing facilities built for the Winter Olympics were first reported for Grenoble in 1968. The Games themselves were judged to be financially successful, but the ski jump has rarely been used, and several other facilities, such as the bobsled tracks, were completely abandoned. And things generally have gotten worse. More specialized facilities frequently have no other users than the elite athletes that competed in the Games in the first place. So, while the facilities might be used for international championships in the following years, the public as a whole doesn’t get to use the venues that they actually paid for. In this area, Vancouver’s gold has actually been polished.
The city’s success began with its planning, as it attempted to use as many existing facilities as possible, upgraded to meet International Federation standards yet keeping costs down. The curling club, the figure and speed skating arena, two hockey rinks, and two alpine skiing areas were pre-existing facilities, and all were returned to pre-Games use as commercial sporting venues. They have also been host to other international competitions and are slated to host more in the near future. Several other national Olympic teams have even come to the city for additional training time on such great facilities.
But some new facilities were needed and constructed, and here the same level of success has not yet been achieved. The Whistler Nordic Center was built to host biathlon, cross-country skiing, ski jumping and Nordic combined. It was hoped that it would be “an accessible, world-class destination for all the Nordic sports, and maximize year-round use of compatible recreational and sporting activities.” (Vancouver Olympic Committee) Upon visiting the Center, though, I was confronted with what looked like a ghost town. Granted, it was summer, but clearly “year-round use” has not been accomplished.
The visitor center had next-to-nothing about the actual Games—no videos, few displays, no personal stories—virtually nothing to commemorate the Games and engage the visitor. There was a self-guided tour of the Center, but it was terribly marked, hardly professional in communicating with the visitor, and totally failed to convey the spirit and excitement of the contests. The ski jump area was a great looking piece of engineering, but you couldn’t get close to it, much less experience it from the top. I think tours of some of the facilities were available, but at high costs and only at very specific times. The biathlon stadium was quite cool to see, and the day we were there an actual biathlon athlete invited us to experience shooting at the targets, though at a very high cost (looking back, I should’ve done it—when else will I get a chance to pop 5 bulls-eyes in such a place!). The surrounding trails could be seen peeking through the trees, but you couldn’t walk them to get a feel for the hills and the turns that the skiers had to confront. In short, while the Nordic Center is being used for both national and international training and championships, the Olympic Committee, or whoever runs the facility now, is missing a huge opportunity to continue to engage the public in its mission.
Vancouver, the most populous city to ever host a Winter Olympics, has done an admirable job post-Games. Most of its recreational facilities have been upgraded and the public, its local university and its professional teams are definitely benefitting. Much of the athlete housing complex has been converted to apartments and provides convenient downtown housing. But some opportunities have been missed, the Nordic Center being a key one. It is hoped that plans are in the works to expand year-round appeal for the facility.
Will Vancouver become the standard for future Olympic hosts? Will plans begin not just with competition requirements but with a post-Games perspective? Will construction dollars be spent to create facilities for two weeks, or for two decades? If the public has to pay, then shouldn’t it get to play also? Vancouver made great strides for the Games, and we can only hope that future sites will shine even more brightly.