Black Flags Over the Olympics

By Karla Fetrow

The Year a People Cried

This has not been a good year for the Olympics.  In fact, there are many who are beginning to wonder if there should ever have been an Olympics at all.  The weather has not co-operated well.  While Vancouver bathed in a warm spell, clattering trucks and helicopters dumped snow on Cypress Mountain, just days before the scheduled events, with weather forecasts predicting rain. Neither did the choice of California Governor, Arnold  Schwarzenegger as a torch bearer sit too well.  The general opinion was that Canada could have found at least as worthy a citizen of Canada to bear the torch.

According to the Diary of Black Athlete, Schwarzeneggner’s main ambition was to negotiate a hi-speed rail deal with Bombardier, the company that built Vancouver’s SkyTrain and New York City’s airport shuttle. The author states bitterly, “Schwarzenegger’s design to have a high-speed rail line go thru all of Cali is the only Olympic event that matters to him.”

To make matters worse, on February 12th. , tragedy struck with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili after a high-speed crash at the end of his final pre-Olympic training run at the Whistler Sliding Center.  Although the officials said they would raise the wall where the slider flew off the track and make an unspecified “change in the ice profile” — but only as a preventative measure “to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again” they denied that the accident was the fault of the track.  Fast and frightening, yes. Responsible for the death of a luger, no.  They ruled  against any major changes in the track or any delays in competition and even doubled up on the schedule, despite the mourning of the Georgia team, in which one player even withdrew.

As tragic as the death of the luger was the shadow of disillusion that now hung over the Olympics.  The show must go on.  This was no longer a peaceful competition for the gold medal placements of the best in sports, this was the Spectacle Extravanganza.  The CTV live streamed the real time death of the Olympic luger at its web site, video clips  were posted at U-tube and other video sites almost as simultaneously, with instant public response.  Hardly any attention has been paid to the winners of the events, but eyes remained fastened to the moment of tragedy.

David Zurorik of the Baltimore Sun wrote, “I can’t get past the way NBC is handling the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumarishtavili. It’s been more than a week now. I gave NBC a pass at first when it let Olympic officials blame Kumarishtavili’s death on the luger rather than the course. I told myself NBC was just holding its powder while its news division, which was on hand in full force with anchorman Brian Williams broadcasting from the games, investigated the matter.”

Zurorik concluded NBC apparently had no plans to do any such thing. It took the New York Times to report that a Venezuelan luger had warned Canadian officials repeatedly starting in November that the track was needlessly dangerous after he was seriously injured in a crash much like the one that killed the Georgian.  In response to the journalistic efforts of the “Times” and other reports of a Georgian coach utterly rejecting claims of luger error, the International Luge Federation Thursday announced that it would do a complete review of all sliding events at the Olympics — after the games.”

The Popularity Charge

The show continued, the cheers and calls sounding more like a polite audience cheering on their favorite high school team.  The ratings looked grim.  NBC could not compete with American Idol.  Enter Shaun White, and the most dare-devil stunts snow-boarding has ever seen.  In his baggy pants, flannel shirt, inappropriate for the cultivated and groomed congregation lingo, he stomped them.  He creamed the Olympics.  The ratings shot sky high and NBC carefully assembled  its cast of reporters and cameras for what was suddenly possibly one of the best Olympics ever; and hopefully one that forgot about Shaun White.

There is much the publicists and sponsors  would like to forget.  The Olympics flounders desperately  between the flawless image it wishes to project and a far more brutal reality knocking at its door.   While NBC preens and gloats over US gold medal winners, it serenely ignores the rumbles and messages in the background.  The city that had hoped to present itself as a prosperous city, a jewel in a wilderness setting, paid a heavy price for the illusion.  On February twelfth, during the opening ceremonies, violence broke out.  “An estimated crowd of 1500 protesters left the Vancouver Art Gallery tonight and marched through the downtown core to Robson and Beatty Streets where they engaged police prior to, and during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games,” said Const. Jana McGuinness.

She also stated, “Two officers were injured with flying objects and one was sent to hospital with a shoulder injury but was treated and released. No protesters were injured.”

The incident as reported in the Feb 14, 2010 Los Angeles Times – McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX, said the police  were finally able to corner the band of about 300 protesters on a commercial block in Vancouver’s west end and then formed a cordon around the leaders, sealing them off as the crowd screamed “Let them go!” They were released a short while later on the condition that they disperse.

Police said about 100 masked “criminal” anarchists were marching among about 200 protesters who appeared to be law-abiding. “We still recognize that there are legitimate protesters out there that want to exercise their rights, but we also recognize that the criminal element has taken over,” Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu told reporters.

The syndicated press brought out very few details concerning the protesters other than stating they were organized by the anti-Olympic Committee in support of the indigenous people of Vancouver whose slogan was, “No Olympics on stolen Native Land”.  In the quick, brush-up job of journalistic cosmetics, the motivations of the angry crowd appeared as pointless as protesting that exchanging the regional area of New York City for blankets and beads was an unfair bargain.  Sure, it was unfair, but it was in the past.  Get over it.

Why the Rumble

According to the Olympic Resistance Network, the issue is far greater than that.  In their Anti-Olympic 2010 Handbook, they claim as early as 1880, the Indigenous people of British Colombia began protesting the theft of their land and resources.  Unlike other regions in Canada;  British; and later, Canadian officials; failed to make treaties surrendering Native land and title to the Crown.  With the exception of a few small treaties on Vancouver Island – the Douglas Treaties of 1850-1854 and a portion of Treaty #8, British Columbia remains sovereign territory.

In 2003, several months before the bid decision was made, the Squamish and Lil’wat Councils  made a deal with the government of Canada that included 20 million dollars in cash and land, plus a Squamish-Lil’wat Cultural Center to be built on nearby Whistler Mountain.  The deal committed the two tribes to participating in and publicly supporting, the 2010 Winter Olympics. Corporate media reported the deal could make the two tribes the wealthiest in the province,  as by 2007, property values in the Whistler area were so high, the average single family home was purchased for a cost of 1.2 million.

In March, 2008, the British Columbian government made an out of court cash settlement with the Musqueam for over 20 million dollars, ending three court cases over land at the UBC golf course and Rock River Casino.  In June, 2008, the federal government paid 17 million dollars each to the Musqueam and the Tseil-Watuth, making the Musqueam one of the wealthiest tribes in Canada.

In 2004, the four area band council established the First Host First Nations as an official Indigenous Olympics organization, comprised of the Squamish, Lil’wat, Musqueam and Tseil-Watuth tribes.  The FHFN has enabled the government to promote the image of healthy, harmonious relationships between Canada and its First People, while in reality, conditions for indigenous populations as a whole, have declined with the advent of the Winter Olympics.  The FHFN is presented as the only legitimate voice of the Indigenous voices in regard to 2010 and the lands directly impacted.  Their financial and monetary gains from 2010 are presented as if to the benefit of all Canada’s indigenous people.  Neither view is correct.

According to the Canadian government’s Community Well-Being index, which rates communities on income levels, health, employment, education, etc., the average rating for Native communities was 70 and for non-Natives, 85.  The Musqueam was rated 87, the Squamish 84, and the Tseil-Wahtuth at 92.

Combined, the FHFN has a total population of between five and  six thousand members.  In contrast, the total Native population of Vancouver consists of approximately 60,000 people, most of whom are being negatively impacted by the Olympics.  In the tradition of most cities that have sponsored the Olympics, Vancouver’s efforts to present itself as affluent and thriving has criminalized the poor. As part of Project Civil City, new laws have passed to make begging for money and sleeping outdoors criminal acts, new garbage cans make it difficult to dig through, and new outside benches make it impossible to lie down. In the interest of security, , Vancouver deployed approximately 12,500 police, military and security personnel to maintain order within its Olympic limits.  In the opinion of many Canadians, Vancouver has become virtually a police state.

The costs for hosting an Olympics games are astronomical.  Vancouver’s has been no exception.  “The winning of a bid for the Olympic Games is the result of a long process that typically costs aspiring hosts tens of millions of dollars… largely funded by public monies but dominated by local elites—industrialists, media moguls, owners of hotels and tourist attractions, advertising companies—for whom the bid process itself produces marketing opportunities to associate themselves with the Olympic rings. The city that wins then enters a long process of preparation, invariably involving major facilities and infrastructure projects that radically change the face of the host city and cost the public hundreds of millions of dollars.”
(Inside the Olympic Industry, p. x)

In March 2007, John Furlong, CEO of VANOC, stated “This is a massive project to manage, a project that’s north of $2 billion” (24 Hours, March 14, 2007) The estimate did not include costs related to infrastructure and security, estimated at an additional four billion, all to be paid by tax payers’ dollars.  The 1976 Montreal Olympics acquired a debt of some $1.2 billion, which was finally paid off in 2002.  The main benefits from the Olympics will serve the news casters, the advertisers, the business community; primarily in tourism; and a few athletes who walk home with gold, but will do very little to increase the income for the rest of the populace.

Say Goodby to Sea and Sky

Added to the list of grievances by Canada’s anti-Olympics committee, is the environmental impact of the Olympic games; primarily the re-routing of the Vancouver–Whistler Sea-to-Sky Highway that joins 2010 Olympic venues between the city and the ski-resort town. The original 74 mile (120 kilometer) highway has been described as “beautiful but treacherous”.  The single lane highway snaked through a series of mountain ledges with the churning ocean a straight drop far below.

It was decided in order to do this, they would have to shave a few minutes off the winding trip but cutting through Eagle Ridge Bluffs and widening the road at Horseshoe Bay into a four lane highway.  To do so was to cut through a very fragile eco-system, disturbing rare plant life and various animal species.  “We know the strongest predictor of species loss is habitat loss,” says Arne Mooers, a biodiversity biologist at Simon Fraser University. “The whole place has been ecologically damaged beyond repair.”

Cutting through Eagle Ridge Bluffs destroyed a nesting area for bald eagles, and removed the arbutus trees,  eliminating a rare ecosystem. The Mininstry of Transportations’s own report to the provincial Assessment Office stated that Eagleridge Bluffs and the Larsen Creek Wetlands are “extremely rare, unique, highly susceptible to disturbance and regionally rare.”

This strikes a sour accord with the Vancouver campaign of a “green” Olympics.  While the triumph of gold glitters, there is an agony of defeat that began before the games ever started.  Much has been sacrificed to support the games; stability, values, well-being and an ecological system that can not be replaced.

Many of the events left one with the uneasy feeling that instead of presenting athletes in the spirit of the Greek founders,  they were more reflective of a Roman Coliseum.  Many of the judges’ rulings have left one puzzling if this was a true appraisal of skills and abilities, or a popularity contest.  A sense of snobbery and elitism pervade the Olympics as the media picks through its golden stars.  In my opinion, the only Olympic star to shine this year was Shaun White.  Retaining his integrity as an individual personality, he captured the attention of a youthful population that has long ago put aside any heroic aspirations for the conscious knowledge that they are under the yoke of a seriously indebted society.  I think that for the Summer Olympics, they should introduce disc golf.