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April 30, 2003

Vancouver's Olympic Victory - why the emotion?

(14 July, 2003) - Vancouver is no stranger to world events. The city has hosted many gatherings of world leaders, royalty, international sports contests and a successful World's Fair in 1986.

But the positive emotion that greeted the July 2 news from Prague that the city, and the nearby resort of Whistler, had been awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics, may have been without precedent. Amid the crowds at the NHL hockey arena, GM Place, gathered that morning to hear the news from Praque, was businessman Klaus Fuerniss, who had been a key vice-president during the 1986 World's Fair. Fuerniss said: "There was nothing at Expo to match the feeling in that crowd. It was wonderful to be there and feel all that positive emotion.

Why the unbridled joy? Why the tears? It's almost 9 years away, and the whole thing lasts just 17 days.

Vancouver, with its spectacular geography and increasingly impressive, cosmopolitan city. has an image that tends to obscure negative trends in recent history. While there has been substantial investment in residential property, more corporate activity has moved out than has moved in. Nearby Calgary, with a friendlier tax regime, and prosperous oil industry, has become the true hub of dynamic Western Canadian business activity. Noncompetitive tax levels during most of the 1990s, a government perceived to be hostile to business and sharp declines in the forest, mining and fishing resources sectors, achieved for British Columbia a stagnant economy rivalling the performance of North America's weakest zones, Newfoundland, West Virginia and Mississippi. Between 1990 and 2000 B.C. dropped from Canada's hottest economy to its poorest.

A society that had grown accustomed to winning on most fronts, has just survived a long dark ages in which losing became a cultural imperative.
A new provincial government took office in 2001, making many corrective measures, and, while results have been slow in coming, the trends are more positive than they have been for years. Enter the joy of the Olympics victory.


Norwegian Gerhard Heiberg who had chaired the evaluation process on behalf of the International Olympic Committee, said after the announcement that he believed Vancouver-Whistler will deliver the finest Winter Olympics ever.

What is always evident when Canada competes to host international events and in the delivery of past successes, is that the governments stand 100 per cent behind them. This helps build confidence in other nations - particularly with respect to world's fairs and presentations requiring significant investment - that whatever is advertised will happen.

The Prime Minister of Canada, the Premier of British Columbia and the mayors of both Vancouver and Whistler were in the audience at Prague. Olympics in Montreal (summer, 1976) and Calgary (winter, 1988) and world's fairs in Montreal (1967) and Vancouver (1986) were triumphs. Cost overruns at the Montreal Olympics were entirely absorbed by the hosts, and helped to evolve new guidelines for subsequent games.

We can only imagine at this stage the crises that await Vancouver between now and 2010, but the history of world events demonstrates a rocky road from conception to delivery.

The Salt Lake City games made headlines over corruption charges, but few remember that the 2002 event had been originally awarded to Denver. This collapsed amid a funding crisis and Utah was the beneficiary.

Despite sage advice from experienced international hands that the processes of winning a bid, building and selling the event, and the ultimate operations require completely different skill sets, few pay attention in the planning. It is normally true that the incumbents at each stage try to take ownership and irrespective of their suitability for subsequent needs, never leave unless forcibly removed.

Capital funding is always a challenge and it is normally true that the politicians in office when the glowing and optimistic promises were made, are not around when it is time to pay the bills.

Vancouver learned from the experience of the 1986 World's Fair. Between the award by the Bureau of International Expositions in 1978 and opening day, there were three complete sets of management, various controversial firings, bitter funding fights among government and near disastrous labour-management disputes. At one point midway, the Premier of British Columbia delivered an ultimatum that if certain matters were not positively resolved by a specific date, he would shut it all down.

We survived that and other calamities en route to a spectacular achievement. British Columbia is eager to tackle the challenge of Vancouver-Whistler 2010.

* * *

A footnote to this story is the nearby neighbour City of Seattle, which put the Pacific Northwest on the map with its own World's Fair in 1964 (the Space Needle is part of the legacy). That success and a smaller event a decade later in Spokane, encouraged Vancouver in its search for Expo '86.

Seattle, through most of its history, has been a similarly gifted city. A glorious geography and a foundation laid by the Boeing Corporation, prospered immeasurably from the more modern growth of Microsoft Corporation and the high tech revolution it has attracted. Rich, sophisticated and creative (origins of Starbucks and other corporate innovations), Seattle seemed as if it could do no wrong.

But the "dot com bust" has taken much of the gas out of the cyber boom and Boeing has consistently downsized, moving, in fact, it's headquarters to Chicago. There is a current threat that the newest version of the 777 may not be built in the State of Washington.

Seattle tourist authorities were quick to herald the successful Vancouver Olympics bid. Not only will neighbours benefit from this world attention, a Canada-U.S, and Pacific Northwest promotional partnership could be Godsend for both of these struggling economies.

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