Vancouver had a new sport added to its roster of Olympic events this past week. It involved a massively parallel Facebook debate about the merits of an article published in the Guardian online. The article, “Vancouver’s Olympics Head for Disaster," was published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, where the paper runs its rants and screeds. This piece was written by Douglas Haddow, a Vancouver freelancer not many people had heard of previously. (Although he’s worth reading. His 2008 Adbusters article "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization" is very funny.)
The Guardian article wasn’t funny exactly (or not intentionally). But then hot indignation rarely is. In this case, the ill-will was directed at pretty everything to do with the Olympic games, the PR glitz, the promotions strategy, but especially the security climate surrounding the games and the cost overruns which are described as a “titanic act of fiscal malfeasance”. It’s a long-ish piece, for the scope of the criticism. But in summary: if you aren’t offended by 800 laid off teachers needed to pay for Olympics and the snips of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda used in promotional material (yes, you read that correctly), then you certainly should be offended by the police officer on every street corner and the military helicopters buzzing overhead. “Post-war Berlin”, the author summed up, reaching for and finding the closest stock footage our imaginations should roll in imagining the martial regime and economic turmoil in question.
Some people immediately guffawed, it should be noted. A Canadian friend living abroad observed on his blog -- after two days of online discussion showed no sign of slowing -- that the article was far less irritating to him than the fact that people were willing to spend time discussing it.
The rest of us, however, took the bait. The status updates exploded. The threads lengthened. My position, from the start, was simply that the article offended journalistic standards by being, well, bullshit. It’s not like I’m an Olympics booster. I’m one of many Vancouverites who supported the games and now regret it. A 6 billion dollar cost overrun will do that to you. And I’d be pissed about that even if the province hadn’t angered many of us further by axing arts and education funding right at the moment we were first learning of the Olympic bill.
Having said all that, “fiscal malfeasance” is the correct charge only if you willfully ignore what’s been happening in the world over the past couple of years. Part of the present turmoil may be the result of boosterish Olympic budgeting. (Security spending came in famously higher than budgeted, with no real explanation why.) But the economic meltdown in the fall of 2008, which wiped out trillions of dollars in value around the world, obviously also played a role, as major sponsors teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and virtually every sponsor slashed their advertising budgets, erasing billions in Olympic revenues. The fact that the Vancouver organizing committee “failed to anticipate” the 2008 economic crisis, as the article helpfully points out, hardly distinguishes them from the rest of us. Not very many people saw that one coming.
Of course the matter of provincial cuts remains, and I won’t be the only one predicting that at the next provincial election the incumbent Liberals will be punished at the polls for education cuts in particular. I’m a consumer of education services (I have a kid in school). So I’m as alarmed as any parent by the possibility that we’re going to lose teachers, either coincidental to or as a direct result of what amounts to a glam winter sports carnival. But the suggestion that 800 teachers will lose their jobs, or that the provincial government has “hinted” that they might, is simply inaccurate. The fact is that the teacher’s union agreement (BC Teachers Federation Collective Agreement) dictates that all teachers with less than 5 years service must get lay-off notice when any lay-offs are contemplated. So all teachers in that category received notice, even though anticipated lay-offs next year are thought by insiders to amount to single digits.
Am I happy about losing even half a dozen teachers? No, I’m furious. But as in all debates, a good argument is undermined, not helped, by hysterical exaggeration.
Which is probably the right point to mention that the Leni Riefenstahl material in question was a shot of the torch from 1936 used in a 30 second montage of torch-bearing footage (since fastidiously excised) making its mention a frivolous criticism where more serious ones might have been made. But then, the same could be said of the way the article portrays the security environment in Vancouver. Cops on every corner? Helicopters buzzing overhead? People being asked to “stay indoors”? To those of us who were incredulous reading these descriptions of Vancouver, it will perhaps be reassuring to know that not even the author intended us to take them seriously. In an email exchange after the article’s publication, the author stressed that I should not mistake the article’s obvious hyperbole for fabrication of the facts.
And apparently the Guardian itself is on this wavelength, since when I offered them a rebuttal piece, they agreed. But only if I would “disagree vehemently” with the original article, while describing how much I supported and was looking forward to the games. No nuanced critique wanted. Just a slugfest.
In a way, I’m sorry to be the one to make the points above: that Vancouver is not as scary a place as described in the article. After all, the Guardian piece makes us seem a lot more exciting than we really are. In fact though, this is a medium sized city with a low key air (despite the hopeful “Riot 2010” graffiti that has started to appear). I mean, God knows we’ve all had days when we wished this place was more like post-war Berlin. But if you give it time, you do adjust.