Saturday, August 1, 2009

VANOC in July: a helluva month

It was hotter than hell in Vancouver in July, a month that can only be described as hellish for Vancouver's struggling 2010 Olympic organizing committee and its government partners.

While Canada Day celebrations across the country included the countdown to Vancouver 2010, VANOC's 76-year-old chairman Jack Poole was in Vancouver General Hospital, under the knife for cancer surgery almost two years to the day of his pancreatic cancer surgery. Poole made a comeback in 2008 after seemingly winning that battle. But pancreatic cancer cells made a comeback in 2009. Poole did not attend the July 15 board meeting. An errant VANOC statement issued the day before the board meeting said his condition was "unrelated" to his previous ailments. Poole's condition was finally disclosed a week later and it unfortunately was very related to his previous battle.

After that closed-door board meeting, VANOC finally owned up to the damage done by the recession. Phase two ticket sales in Canada stalled at 155,000 (130,000 were sold in four hours on June 6 and only 25,000 since) and $12 million of out-of-home advertising VANOC bought for re-sale to sponsors and governments was unsold. The $285,000 deluxe ticket packages were far behind sales. Only 25 of the 100 available have been bought. Luxury suites still remain for sale at B.C. Place Stadium and General Motors Place.

Need surgery in February? Unless you're an athlete or International Olympic Committee member, you're out of luck. A July 9 Fraser Health memo said 2,000 surgeries -- over 3% of the annual load -- would be canceled during Games time. Vancouver Coastal Health is doing the same. Traffic gridlock and fears of the H1N1 flu pandemic and terrorism are among the reasons. VCH has earmarked Vancouver General Hospital for sick IOC members, sponsors and media and St. Paul's Hospital for spectators.

Women hoping to ski jump at the 2010 Games got news they didn't want to hear on July 10 when Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon published her verdict. She was powerless to force the IOC to add their sport because the IOC is Swiss-based and not subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She did, however, make two significant rulings. The women were victims of gender discrimination and VANOC is subject to the constitution because it is an organization carrying out a publicly funded, government activity. An appeal was filed in Vancouver, Kamloops and Victoria so that a tribunal can consider overturning the Fenlon verdict before the Games.

Speaking of flying, Vancouver 2010 airspace restrictions were quietly released July 2 by NAV Canada and copied by the FAA. They're so drastic, that even model airplanes can't be used in the vast no-fly zone. Those who breach the restricted airspace could receive a visit from a military fighter jet.

RCMP Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit chief Bud Mercer appeared before Vancouver city council on July 7 to give an update on Olympic security planning. He was evasive when asked about free speech areas (aka protest zones) at Thunderbird Arena, Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Centre and the Pacific Coliseum. But they're going to be there. Mayor Gregor Robertson said the whole city should be a free speech area, but later in the month supported a bylaw that goes in the opposite direction. Mercer said it took him 10 minutes to search around the Internet and find discomforting images that indicate the safety of the Games is at stake. It took me 10 minutes to find some interesting things on the Internet when I found out that Mercer's given names are actually Gary Russell.

Three people were shot at the gate of the Squamish Nation Pow Wow late July 11 at the Capilano Indian Reserve. No suspects have been arrested. It happened, coincidentally, on the eve of the annual march against violence and abuse near the Humulchesan longhouse. That's the site of a Feb. 10 stop on VANOC's Olympic torch relay and next to the site of a Squamish Nation house-building boom. Chief Gibby Jacob, a VANOC director, claims there is no connection to the Olympics, despite the reserve being visible from the very busy Lions Gate Bridge.

"I don’t foresee any future problems, but i don’t have a crystal ball either," said Deborah Baker, one of six Bakers on the 12-member Squamish Nation council, a Pow Wow committee member and part of the North Vancouver community torch relay task force.

Vancouver park board rubber-stamped a contract July 20 to turn 365 spots at Jericho and Spanish Banks beachfront parking lots into recreational vehicle spots for Feb. 8 to March 2 at $95 per spot, per night. Fort Langley's Duckworth Management Group scored the deal, but it was greeted with scorn by the North West Point Grey Home Owners' Association who had a rare "not in my front yard" grievance.

VANOC began its Game Plan 2009 tour of communities impacted by the Games, but they weren't getting the full story. NPA parks commissioner Ian Robertson said VANOC has not been forthcoming with its game plan for the three Hillcrest Park soccer fields to close more than two months before the Games.

Resort Municipality of Whistler council put off a plan to charge for parking at municipal lots when enough citizens who were put off by the idea showed up at a July 21 council meeting. Many of the citizens told council that it was spending too much on Olympic frills, like tickets and jackets for politicians and bureaucrats. Pique Newsmagazine editor Bob Barnett noted the discontent in the editorial of an edition that featured parodies of the VANOC mascots on the cover.

On July 29, RMOW advertised for a new general manager of environmental services. The Pique reported the suspicious departure of Brian Barnett, who was also on the Olympic and Paralympic Transport Team. Did he quit? Was he fired? RMOW wouldn't say.

Vancouver city council voted 9-2 for an omnibus Olympic bylaw package that creates massive bubble zones around Olympic venues from Jan. 1 to March 31. It raised the ire of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association because of the potential for the city, on behalf of VANOC and the IOC, to curtail freedom of political and commercial speech far away from the grounds of Olympic events.

City manager and VANOC director Penny Ballem gained extraordinary and controversial powers to create bylaws during the Games because there will be no scheduled council meetings. More than two dozen people appeared at council to speak against the proposal, including Downtown Eastside citizens unhappy with the Olympics' impact on their depressed neighbourhood.

On July 23, Premier Gordon Campbell and finance minister Colin Hansen announced the provincial sales tax would be combined with the federal goods and services tax on July 1, 2010, effectively hiking the cost of many goods and services by 7%. They call it the harmonized sales tax, but it's already causing chaos.

Colleague Bill Tieleman and ex-Premier Bill Vander Zalm are working on their own for a tax revolt. Some citizens say it's really the OST, as in Olympic Sales Tax, meant to mop up the red ink left behind by the Games. The hike in the consumption tax could lead to the downfall of Campbell because it's going to hit hard those who form his party's grassroots support: retailers and restaurateurs. The Liberals disavowed tax increases before they won re-election on May 12. Perhaps this surprise tax shuffle was foreshadowed when longtime Olympics minister Hansen dropped the portfolio to rookie Mary McNeil in the June 12 cabinet shuffle. Campbell isn't stupid. He knows Hansen has two hands, not three. Hansen can't carry an Olympic pom-pom at the same time as a budget-cutting axe and a bag to fill the new tax loot.

VANOC's press chief Lucia Montanarella offered a rare glimpse of the unease inside Fortress 2010 when she told the Associated Press in a July 24 story that the Games would be good, but not spectacular.

A lightning-started forest fire on Blackcomb Mountain's Crystal Ridge on July 30 was too far away to threaten the Whistler Sliding Centre. But it did happen on the first anniversary of the rockslide that closed the Sea-to-Sky Highway for four days. A reminder that Mother Nature could throw the Games a curveball that can hit harder than any human misdeeds or economic challenges.

Impact on Community Coalition chairman Am Johal went to Geneva, Switzerland July 31 to deliver two complaints to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Johal asked the UN to send observers to Vancouver to ensure civil liberties are upheld and the poor aren't evicted during the Games. Johal claims VANOC has failed to implement the Inner City Inclusive Commitment Statement that it used to win the bid.

VANOC ended the month on July 30 begging for companies and governments to loan 1,500 employees for two to six month periods. VANOC cannot afford to fill the positions as it wrestles with the recession. CEO John Furlong's Nov. 13, 2008 appeal to businesses at a Vancouver Board of Trade lunch to send in free labour was a flop. The organizing committee said 20 sponsors and governments contributed 45 people.

The Games need all the stars they can get, but will not have Michelle Kwan. U.S. figure skating legend Kwan -- who won one of her five world championships in Vancouver in 2001 -- announced July 31 that she would not make a comeback for Vancouver 2010. The 29-year-old, Nagano 1998 silver medalist will instead seek a master's degree in international affairs from Tufts University.

Tufts luck, indeed.

bob.mackin@sunmedia.ca

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