We Found our Ruby Slippers in Vancouver

As far as she was concerned my colleague Denise was simply one of many everyday Canadians who had the honour of carrying the Olympic torch on its journey across the country. She wasn’t quite prepared for the notoriety, albeit brief, that resulted. Running her leg through a small town with a hospital on one side of the road and a senior centre on the other, the streets were lined with enthusiastic flag wavers shivering in the cold simply to catch a glimpse of the torch. At the reception that followed at the local community centre, Denise spent most of her time posing for photographs and signing autographs. She was also so very touched by the diversity of those attracted by the event.  And yet, because we both work in the field of recreation, our enthusiasm waned somewhat as we went on to discuss the high costs of both the Olympic Torch Run and the Games that followed. 

“What if”, we pondered, “That same amount of money had been invested in initiatives designed to provide more Canadians with access to sports, recreation, and active living”? Ironically, almost the reverse has happened. Provincial sport, recreation and art groups in British Columbia have already faced significant funding cuts. So too has education. Pundits are suggesting there are more cuts and tax increases to come. 

So the big question remains, were the Olympics worth the billions spent? It’s not even clear how many billions we’re talking about because it depends on what you include in the count. For example the officials don’t always include the billion dollar highway improvement, the almost a billion dollar trade and convention centre, or the $2 billion transportation cost of Canada Line.

However, if we do look at the positive side of the ledger there is much that was done right in Vancouver.

Positioning themselves to attract world attention as a city focused on green technology, Vancouver made sustainability a pillar of its Games. Winning kudos from environmental advocates for its rainwater reuse, green roof system that provides the infrastructure needed for gardens, and integration with park space and public transit, the Olympic Village complex will be converted and sold as condos. The $178 million Richmond Oval used for all the speedskating events will become a multi-use recreation centre and the anchor of a new waterfront neighbourhood. The City’s public transit system got a major makeover with the Canada Line providing a rapid rail system from downtown to the airport, and streetcars were put back on the road.  Even the gold, silver, and bronze medals were partly made of metal collected from discarded computer circuit boards.

Will the investments pay off?  For sure there is economic value in the name recognition gained by a city once they have hosted an Olympics. Research using a variety of trade models, also shows that hosting a mega-event like the Olympics has a positive impact on national exports. This effect is statistically robust, permanent, and large; trade is around 30% higher for countries that have hosted the Olympics.

In 2008, another study stated that : “...there are major personal, social and economic benefits of sport investment and presented evidence, along with current best estimates of the return on investment from governmental spending on sport; which range upward from an approximately $3.00 return for every $1.00 invested.” 
But, dollars aside, there are significant benefits that, while difficult to measure, are perhaps even more important.  The Games have stressed that all of us can and should get involved in sports. Maybe we won’t be skiing the giant slalom or doing a triple axel but we can cross-country ski or take the kids for a skate or a toboggan run. What’s really important is that we get active and reap the health benefits, as well as the subsequent and significant economic savings of being a country that encourages physical activity. 

These Olympics also brought Canadians together to celebrate, sometimes commiserate, but ultimately unite us in a strong and growing sense of knowing that we are a rich tapestry of diversity and yes, “niceness”. It made us more confident that we have something different and unique to offer the world and made us proud to be Canadian. Just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, it seems we’ve been looking for our ruby slippers for ages. We found them in Vancouver.  We’ve learned we have Dorothy’s kindness, her loyalty, her love of her friends and family as well as a brain like the Scarecrow’s that was constantly at work -  always observant, reflective, and consistently applying intelligence to tactics for moving the team forward.  We learned Canadians have the heart of the Tin Man reflected in our care, concern, and respect for others and, like the Lion, know it is okay to be afraid as long as we never let it stop us from doing the right thing. Like Dorothy and her team, Canadians too have learned we have the power to create our own destiny and happiness. And, while it is true the impact of the Olympics is difficult to measure, we can say with certainty there is great value in moving Canadians to have embraced the hope and spirit of knowing….this is our time.

Posted on 02-28-10

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