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.

Friday, July 31, 2009

A Contemporary classic

Contemporary Security Canada opened its doors to the media for a July 30 tour of its 333 Terminal Avenue recruitment office.

The Salt Lake City-based company and its partners Aeroguard of Toronto and United Protection Services of Edmonton are seeking 5,000 people to staff the airport-style security checkpoints at 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics venues. Contemporary is under contract with the RCMP Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit for more than $97 million. That makes it the single largest non-VANOC contractor.

The event started at 9:30 a.m. A few minutes later, I received a phone call from the VANOC media relations department about a 9:45 a.m. teleconference on the organizing committee's campaign to seek seconded employees from companies and governments. Seems that there was a communications miscue between VANOC and V2010 ISU. The teleconference was eventually delayed until 2 p.m.

Other signs that Contemporary's allegiance is to the RCMP and not VANOC were evident. All the laptop computers in the office were by Lenovo and the hand-sanitizer was the Johnson & Johnson Purell brand. Lenovo and J&J Olympic sponsorship contracts ended with Beijing 2008. Acer and Alda Pharmaceuticals are the official VANOC computer and hand germ-killer companies.

VANOC's voce del malcontento

Someone at VANOC forgot to issue pom-poms to Lucia Montanarella, the imported from Italy press operations chief for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The VANOC recessionary budget crisis knows no bounds and it's being felt in her department.

According to an Associated Press story that ran July 24, she was quoted as saying: "For Athens and Torino and maybe Barcelona, we all went without high expectations and we enjoyed it more," she said. "With the high expectations for Vancouver, it makes it more difficult to match."

"I think they will be good games," she said. "Not spectacular."

A rare glimpse inside Fortress 2010 or just a disgruntled employee? I say it's the former.

Those comments were what sparked the New Democratic Party to issue a news release on July 31 from Kathy Corrigan, the opposition critic for the Olympics. The headline was "Going for the Gold or Settling for Mediocrity?"

“This is the exact opposite of what the Campbell government has been telling British Columbians about an event they’re spending billions on,” Corrigan said in the release. “Just two years ago, Colin Hansen said the Olympics would be ‘the best Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games that this world has ever seen.’

“British Columbians deserve to know who’s telling the truth about the state of the Olympics,” said Corrigan. “The B.C. Liberals have talked about going for the gold, but statements by senior officials in VANOC seem to suggest they’re going to settle for fourth and out of the medals.”

It's not the first time Montanarella has spoken out about Vancouver's shortfalls. On Feb. 8 told media at the World Alpine Skiing Championships in Val d'Isere, France that the waterfront Main Press Centre at the Vancouver Convention Centre could be a traffic jam waiting to happen.

"There are some issues because of the three sides to it, only one is on the street," she said. "This is a complication being that this will be the main transportation hub."

As shocking as Montanarella's latest quote is, at least she spoke frankly and freely about her job and the organization. VANOC does its best to control its message, by restricting or limiting interview access to key personnel. Often reporters are supplied with manufactured statements. When interviews are arranged, the interview subject is stocked with highly structured talking points.

Oh say can you see 'em coming north?

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire hosted what seemed like a political Lilith Fair on July 27 when Department of Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano and British Columbia Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations Naomi Yamamoto visited Blaine, Bellingham and Seattle.

Spotted among the delegation was Maj. Gen. Timothy Louwenberg, Washington State's top military man. Part of the July 27 agenda was the ribbon-cutting at the US$4 million Olympic Coordination Centre at Bellingham International Airport. That's where personnel from 40 military, police and emergency services agencies will monitor the 2010 Winter Olympics for any trouble.

Few officials on either side of the border -- including Napolitano -- want to discuss how many American "boots on the ground" will be north of the 49th parallel during the 2010 Winter Olympics. They'll be here. Trust me... but not in a Nixonian sense.

The U.S. interest in security of the 2010 Winter Olympics isn't just because it is conveniently next door. Presidential Decision Directive 39, issued in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, states:

"It is the policy of the United States to deter, defeat and respond vigorously to all terrorist attacks on our territory and against our citizens, or facilities, whether they occur domestically, in international waters or airspace or on foreign territory. The United States regards all such terrorism as a potential threat to national security as well as a criminal act and will apply all appropriate means to combat it. In doing so, the U.S. shall pursue vigorously efforts to deter and preempt, apprehend and prosecute, or assist other governments to prosecute, individuals who perpetrate or plan to perpetrate such attacks.

"We shall work closely with friendly governments in carrying out our counterterrorism policy and will support Allied and friendly governments in combating terrorist threats against them."

Put that in the context of the Games and U.S. government policy means that it needs to watch out for U.S. athletes, media, sponsors and spectators, wherever they are.

The United States Olympic team is expected to be the biggest. NBC is the biggest broadcast rights holder. Parent General Electric is among four U.S.-based global Olympic sponsors. Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa are the others. General Motors is the Games' vehicle sponsor. Even Canadian icon Hudson's Bay Co. is U.S.-owned.

The General Accounting Office reported “almost 20 entities and offices within a number of U.S. agencies (including DHS, State and Defense) provided more than $35 million in security assistance and support” in Greece during Athens 2004. The U.S. also had personnel in Torino, Italy for the 2006 Winter Games.

In 2008 -- on Valentine's Day, no less -- military commanders on both sides of the border signed the Civil Assistance Plan. NORAD Commander Gen. Gene Renuart and his Canadian counterpart Lt. Gen. Marc Dumais of Canada Command inked a pact and shook hands on a deal that would allow forces to cross the border in case of a natural disaster or terrorist incident.

U.S. forces began their massive National Level Exercise 2009, formerly known as TOPOFF (or Top Officials), on July 27 and it runs through July 31. Canadian military and public safety agencies are involved. The event was billed in a 2007 schedule as "Olympics Prep." (See page 7).

Nobody from the B.C. Government Integrated Public Safety Unit or City of Vancouver emergency operations office is involved this week. RCMP Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit Chief Bud Mercer said his group would not be involved. (In training for the World Police and Fire Games, perhaps?)

The official full-scale military exercise of the 2010 Games is Exercise Gold, which runs Nov. 2-7 in southwestern B.C. Olympic security is costing Canadian taxpayers a record $900 million.

Guns 'n Hoses rock Vancouver

A welcoming committee of a different sort is getting ready to greet the 10,000 cops, firefighters and jail guards in Vancouver for the 2009 World Police and Fire Games.

Athletes are having a parade of their own from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. beginning at Science World.

The notorious Anti-Poverty Committee will march from Victory Square at 7 p.m. Friday to GM Place to wish the athletes well in their sporting endeavors.

"The APC calls on all those individuals and groups who are against police brutality and the everyday terror and violence caused by the various police forces to participate in actions and events during the police and fire Games," said an APC news release.

The WPFG opens just two days after West Vancouver Const. Griffin Gillan was given a 21-day conditional sentence with no jail time as punishment for attacking a newspaper delivery man outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Jan. 20.

Gillan pleaded guilty to the assault. He downed 20 to 25 drinks on a night out with New Westminster cop Jeffrey Klassen and Delta cop Blair Tanino. He threatened a person who gave him a lift before beating up Firoz Khan. He also kicked and punched a police cruiser. Klassen allegedly joined the melee and is to appear in court in September.

Many visitors to the WPFG -- perhaps even Polish police -- came through Vancouver International Airport, where Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died minutes after he was Tasered on Oct. 14, 2007 by RCMP Const. Kwesi Millington. His commander was Cpl. Benjamin "Monty" Robinson who was shuffled to the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit. He is suspended with pay from the Olympic security squad and banned from driving because of an Oct. 25, 2008 fatal collision in Tsawwassen.

Delta Police recommended to Crown counsel that Robinson be charged with dangerous driving and impaired driving causing death after motorcyclist Orion Hutchinson was struck by a sport utility vehicle.

Robinson and his comrades were not charged for their role in the death of Dziekanski, but their actions are under scrutiny in the ongoing Braidwood Inquiry. Retired judge Thomas Braidwood found that Tasers are deadly and must only be used under strict limits. The inquiry reconvenes in September to mull the bombshell email between senior RCMP officers that indicated the "YVR 4" decided to Taser Dziekanski before they arrived on scene.

In June, ex-jail guard Roger Brian Moore was sent to the slammer for four years because he peddled $20,620 worth of marijuana, ecstasy and steroids and $10,000 of tobacco to prisoners.

North Fraser was also the place where corrupt jail guard Edwin Ticne helped gangster Omid Tahvili escape in 2007. Ticne got three-and-a-half years. Tahvili is wanted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has much more to say about the sorry state of policing in the Olympic province.

Join me in saluting those in law enforcement who respect the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, risk their lives to save others' lives or tirelessly pursue murderers, rapists, thieves and fraudsters.

Most police honor the badge and understand their job is to serve and protect the citizens who pay their wages, but who can disagree that one bad cop is one too many?

Jumpin' Jim Chu, it's a mass, mass, mass

Why the demonization of Critical Mass, the last Friday of the month bike-riding protest through downtown Vancouver streets? It's one of 300 around the world.

It just so happens that the last Friday of July is the opening of the World Police and Fire Games at General Motors Place. At 20:00 hours, as they say in the biz.

On the last Wednesday of the month, Vancouver Police Insp. Rick McKenna of the emergency and operational planning section told a news conference that "this Friday evening, despite our best efforts, we are very concerned about the safety, timing and location of the Critical Mass bike ride." He cited an increase in road rage and rule-breaking last month and even warned motorists to avoid downtown Vancouver.

"The fact of the matter is that Critical Mass has reached a critical mass of civil disobedience," McKenna said.

Cyclin' politician Mayor Gregor Robertson and VPD Chief Jim Chu issued a joint plea on the last Thursday of the month for riders to meet them to discuss creating a predetermined route "as well as ways to reduce tension and improve safety for citizens."

Robertson, who is also chairman of the police board, joined the April 2008 Critical Mass ride during his campaign to become the Vision Vancouver mayoralty nomination.

With all the advance publicity, the only thing preventing a record turnout of riders could be the sweltering heat.

On the first Tuesday of the month, RCMP Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit chief Gary R. "Bud" Mercer told Vancouver city council that the Critical Mass ride could bring chaos to streets during the last Friday of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Feb. 26.

Mercer pointed to the fact that Critical Mass has no organization or leader.

Coincidentally, Critical Mass traditionally starts at 6 p.m. at the Vancouver Art Gallery's north side, near the Omega Olympic/Paralympic Countdown clock. It's Vancouver's de facto civic square.

The VPD communications strategy in the last week of July is undoubtedly a consequence of Mercer's July 7 council appearance and a bid to prevent a Games-time version of Critical Mass.

Critical Mass isn't new. It's been here since the 1990s. You Never Bike Alone is a 2007 documentary on the phenomenon. The cycle protests have achieved victories. There is better cycling access in downtown, an expanded seawall around Burrard Inlet and False Creek and even a trial of new bike lanes on the Burrard Street Bridge. Motorists have one less lane.

Now if more cyclists would wear helmets, stop at stop signs and avoid using iPods while riding, the world would be an even better place.

Stepping on the Wa-Wa pedal

The 2009 World Police and Fire Games begin July 31 in Vancouver. If you thought the guns and hoses games were just an excuse for police, firemen, customs agents, prison guards and paramedics to compete for bragging rights in dozens of sports, talk shop and drink Canadian beer, think again.

It will be a test event for the 2010 Winter Olympics in some security circles. United States authorities are taking it so seriously that they chose July 27 for Department of Homeland Security Sec. Janet Napolitano to cut the ribbon at the US$4 million Olympic coordination centre at Bellingham International Airport. Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and British Columbia Minster of State for Intergovernmental Relations Naomi Yamamoto joined the former Arizona governor on a tour of the communications nerve centre for 40 military, police and emergency services agencies.

The primary purpose of Yamamoto's trip was to plan the itinerary and agenda for the B.C. government's annual joint cabinet meeting with Washington's cabinet. Yamamoto said she didn't plan to discuss customs pre-clearance for Olympic ticketholders with Napolitano. Nor did she say she was would encourage Gregoire to make Washington a sponsor of VANOC.

“That's between VANOC and the government," said Yamamoto, a rookie North Vancouver Liberal legislator. "We would appreciate their support with sponsorship, but I'm not sure where that's at.”

By the way, it appears Washington State could be on its way to announcing sponsorship of VANOC. Or at least setting up a trade and tourism presence in the Olympic city at Games-time.

Washington Tourism launched an Olympic-themed website in July and has hired Edelman Public Relations. Since 1984, Edelman has serviced private and public clients at every Olympic Games.

Why do I think a significant announcement is forthcoming? Edelman Seattle is making an Olympian effort to shield its client -- a government body, no less -- from pesky reporters seeking interviews. Edelman's Vancouver office -- which handled British Columbia government promotions at Torino 2006 and Beijing 2008 -- is also working on the project.

Washington has waited until the summer before the Winter Games to get active. Gregoire signed a cross-border partnership with B.C. in 2005 and even set-up a state Olympic secretariat. Dave Guscott, VANOC executive vice-president of government relations, said July 15 that VANOC is seeking state sponsors. Better late than never.

Patrick Kinsella and Mark Jiles, friends of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, were once Olympic-focussed lobbyists for the State of Washington. There even was talk of the Olympic torch relay dipping below the border and an inukshuk and countdown clock for Seattle.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Historic Chinatown building to host Olympic gold greats

The gold rush drew Guangdong, China-born pioneer Yip Sang to British Columbia in 1881.

Next February, the 120-year-old "house that Yip built" in Vancouver's Chinatown will be the home away from home for golden greats of Olympics-past.

Chinatown patriarch Yip built a small import/export, retail and labour agency empire at 51 East Pender before he died in 1927. The Wing Sang building included stores, a classroom and even an opium factory. It is slated to reopen in October as real estate marketing whiz Bob Rennie's office and gallery.

Rennie is providing Wing Sang, rent-free, for the World Olympians Association to use as its reunion centre during the 2010 Winter Olympics. Rennie's restoration has been a four-year labour of love. When asked how much it's costing, he rolls his eyes, smiles and says, "way more than I ever expected."

"It doesn’t make business sense, it makes cultural sense," said Rennie, who was raised in east Vancouver and believes the building could be the catalyst for the rebirth of Chinatown.

At night it's distinguished by a Martin Creed-designed neon sign (as photographed by Scott Massey) that reads: Everything is going to be alright. That is also Rennie's philosophy for the 2010 Games and the Downtown Eastside, a troubled community in transition.

The WOA reunion centre is the only known Olympic hospitality event coming to Chinatown. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is expected to be a draw for those wanting to take a break from the Games. The Sam Kee building, the world's narrowest, is just down the street.

Summertime brings the weekend night market to Chinatown. The rest of the year, it's almost empty at night, even when the Vancouver Canucks are at home a few blocks away in General Motors Place. Chinese shopping malls in Richmond and Coquitlam are bigger, glitzier draws for recent immigrants from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Almost one in five people in Metro Vancouver are ethnic Chinese.

“We are so delighted Bob has offered this to be our home away from home," said WOA vice-president and five-time Canadian Olympian Charmaine Crooks. "It speaks to powerful contributions of community leaders like him that are making to the athletes.”

Crooks, a Los Angeles 1984 track silver medalist and VANOC director, said it’s a location “where we can really engage the community.”

She envisions the third-floor classroom as a venue for special events, like forums to discuss women in sports and themed days devoted to youth and media.

Visa is sponsoring the opening gala. Paralympians will be invited, too.

"The Olympics are about celebrating sport, culture and diversity," Crooks said. "In this facilty we have a powerful combination of all those."

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