What a difference two years and four days makes.
On May 16, 2007, the city-owned complex that VANOC calls home on Graveley Street in east Vancouver was surrounded with temporary fencing. Behind the barricades were dozens of Vancouver Police officers carrying batons and wearing no smiles. Some had barking, fang-baring dogs on short leashes. Others were on horseback. B.C. Ambulance Service paramedics were on standby for blood, bruises and broken bones.
The reason? The Anti-Poverty Committee vowed to get in and disrupt the VANOC board meeting where directors were supposed to consider whether to open up to public scrutiny.
The APC, led by David Cunningham (where is he now?), was a small but loud group that day. Instead of remaining to protest on an unfenced patch of grass, Cunningham, fellow APC leader Anna Hunter and their followers marched east to Boundary Road.
They blocked traffic, chanted “homes not Games,” waved a “no Olympics on stolen native land” banner, read the names of VANOC directors, chanted “shame” and then dispersed before the post-board meetings news conference began inside.
The police, paramedics and fence rental company must’ve enjoyed the no sweat payday.
The VPD was in face-saving mode after Cunningham and bandana-wearing artist/activist Gord Hill slipped through police lines and jumped on stage at the Feb. 12, 2007 countdown clock unveiling outside the Vancouver Art Gallery. Noisy protesters also drowned out a children’s choir and politicians’ speeches at the March 12, 2007 city hall Paralympic flag-lighting.
The legacy of those three incidents remains. Major VANOC media events are highly controlled and publicized with little advance notice. The official one-year countdown event -- a major come-one, come-all public celebration in other Olympic cities -- was a high-security, invitation-only show for only 1,200 people inside a corner of the vast Richmond Olympic Oval on Feb. 12, 2009. Taxpaying Olympic fans were told to stay home and watch it on TV.
VANOC didn’t become more transparent that day in May 2007, despite a news release that said it would. Governance committee chairman Rusty Goepel dismissed calls to follow the example set by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. The board could not function, he said, in a “fishbowl” with people and the press in the same room as directors. This reporter suggested observers need not be present, because a webcam and microphone could easily satisfy the public’s right to know and protect the board from distraction.
“We didn’t think of that,” said surprised chairman Jack Poole.
Fast forward to May 20, 2009. VANOC board meetings are still behind closed doors and minutes -- if they exist -- aren’t published. The VANOC headquarters still has no Canada, British Columbia or even Olympic flag outside. The only sign that says Vancouver 2010 is a frosted logo on the ground floor glass door. Beijing’s Olympic committee had a five-storey logo and banners down the sides of its tower.
There were no fences, no cops, no dogs, no horses and no paramedics when the VANOC board met for the third of six 2009 scheduled get-togethers. The patch of grass the APC so briefly occupied two years earlier now has green picnic tables and a volleyball net. While streams of VANOC employees went off-site for coffee and to chat about who knows what, some stayed to bump and set over the net under the rays of May. Looks like fun. Wonder if they’d let the media join in?
Inside, reporters were ushered not into the atrium, where news conferences are normally held. For the first time, the post-board meeting news conference was in the boardroom itself. The same place where decisions were made and mostly kept secret.
Federal Tory-appointed francophone director Jacques Gauthier left to catch a flight, leaving only Poole to join CEO John Furlong and newly promoted deputy CEO Dave Cobb for the news conference. (Poole eventually left early from the news conference after handing a scribbled note to vice-president of communications Renee Smith-Valade, leaving no directors present at the news conference about the directors' meeting.)
The never boring, always good for a quote Poole declared management is “in a pressure cooker environment” because of the recession and rapidly approaching Games. He couldn’t have been more honest.
Beyond the mutual chuckles about the day’s Toronto Star story comparing the Olympic torch to a joint, one could’ve cut the air with a knife. Especially when this reporter asked about three matters for which VANOC did not apparently rehearse. My question about B.C. Place Stadium’s latest safety troubles was as unwelcome as the answers were evasive.
An April 9 report by WorkSafeBC found workers charged with keeping the Vancouver Olympic stadium air-supported roof aloft were ill-trained, thus jeopardizing workplace safety at the most important Olympic venue of all. B.C. Place is hosting the opening and closing ceremonies and medals presentations. Three billion viewers are expected via worldwide TV and the Internet next February. Most images they will see of Vancouver 2010 will originate from B.C. Place.
Emcee Smith-Valade passed the microphone to workforce executive vice-president Donna Wilson who passed the microphone to CEO John Furlong. Not one offered anything of substance or anything to indicate they had actually read the report. Furlong did not answer the key question about whether VANOC had even discussed the matter with stadium management.
Finally, Cobb interjected. “OK Bob, we’re going to cut off your question.”
The big announcement at the news conference was that 150,000 tickets to all events, including some for the B.C. Place ceremonies, would go on sale to Canadian residents on June 6. I can understand why bothersome questions about worker safety at B.C. Place can be so inconvenient in a time of need.
The ticket sale could fetch a much-needed $40 million to $50 million. With sponsors Nortel in bankruptcy and General Motors coasting in that direction, VANOC must cherish any money saved or money earned. Never before has an organizing committee, in North America at least, operated in such an environment of economic upheaval. There is evidently no playbook for this once-in-a-generation game.
It almost makes those 2007 protests seem insignificant.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
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