Vancouver's Olympic Vision: Stimulus for Change or Risky Business Venture? The Impact of Rewarding the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games to Vancouver 
Written by Rhonda Parkinson
Originally published by Maple Leaf Web, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge. Note: This is the original feature, written solely by Rhonda Parkinson. It has not been altered or updated by another author.

On July 2, 2003, cheers erupted throughout Vancouver when International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge announced that Vancouver would host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Vancouver's victory was hard-fought. Concerned about the impact of an Olympic Games on society's poorer members, community groups united to oppose the Vancouver bid. On voting day, Vancouver nearly lost to Pyeongchang, a South Korean mountain town originally considered to be a long shot.

Although Vancouver was officially declared the winner, many events will be held at Whistler, a village and ski resort north of Vancouver. The Olympic Winter Games are scheduled to take place from February 12 to 28, 2010, while the Paralympics will take place from March 12 to 21, 2010. Overall, more than 5,000 athletes will compete in over sixteen Olympic sports and eight Paralympic sports, ranging from alpine skiing to the biathlon.

The following explores the political aspect of rewarding the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to Vancouver. The article is broken down into the following sections:

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Hosting the Olympic Games

The Olympic legacy can range from increased employment to a massive debt

How the IOC Chooses a Host City for an Olympic Games

A breakdown of the formal evaluation process

Financing the Olympic Games

How much does it cost and who pays for it?

Opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Bid

Politicians and social activists joined forces to oppose the Vancouver bid

The IOC Chooses the Host City for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games

Politics played a role in Salzburg's early elimination and Pyeongchang's strong finish

What Happens Now: An Olympic Timeline

What British Columbia residents can expect over the next seven years and what it will take for the Winter Olympic Games to be a success.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Hosting The Olympic Games

The Olympic legacy can range from increased employment to a massive debt

Many cities have benefited from the international exposure that comes with hosting an Olympic Games. However, others were left with an enormous debt load and a public that expressed their disapproval by voting out the municipal government at the next election.

What are the Benefits of Hosting the Olympic Games?

There are several potential benefits to being chosen as host city:

  • Job Creation
  • Money for Large Scale Transportation Projects
  • Major New Sports Facilities
  • Increased Tourism
  • Enhanced International Profile

Job Creation

A winning bid means the creation of thousands of short-term jobs, primarily in the construction or service industry. Transportation systems are upgraded, and sport venues, housing, and other facilities need to be constructed. Numerous jobs are created in the service industry, including ticket sales. Frequently, the number of jobs exceeds the number of available workers and a massive volunteer effort is required. While few jobs are permanent, the length of preparation time for the Olympics means several years of increased employment for the city.

Money for Large Scale Transportation Projects

Hosting an international event like the Olympic Games allows a city to undertake major transportation projects. To prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing is constructing a light rail transit system. In British Columbia, both the Coquahalla Highway and Vancouver's SkyTrain Rapid Transit system were constructed after Vancouver was selected to host Expo '86.

Major New Sports Facilities

Once the Games are secured, work begins on high caliber sports venues that remain in use after the Olympics. In Calgary, both the Olympic Oval at the University of Calgary and the Bobsleigh/Luge Track at Canada Olympic Park continue to attract world-class athletes and enhance Calgary's reputation in the international community. In British Columbia, Whistler's transformation from a mere ski hill to a world-class resort came about because of two previous (unsuccessful) bids to host the Winter Games.

Increased Tourism

Hosting an Olympic Games benefits both the host city and the region. Tourists travelling long distances to the Games often take time to visit the surrounding area. However, Olympic organizers sometimes overestimate the benefit to local tourism. For example, in 1988, Seoul had significantly fewer tourists than originally anticipated. On the other hand, Australia experienced a major tourism surge from the 2000 Summer Games, held in Sydney.

Enhanced International Profile A successful Olympic Games can propel a city to world-class status, leading to increased tourism and business opportunities.

What are the Drawbacks of Hosting an Olympic Games?

Potential drawbacks to hosting an Olympic event can be broken down into two categories:

  • Financial costs affecting all taxpayers
  • Policies affecting renters and the poor and homeless

Financial Costs Affecting all Taxpayers

Cost of Living Increases Staging an Olympic Games leads to rising demand for basic goods such as food, with resulting price increases. The impact of the Olympics on the pocketbooks of city residents may begin years before the Games, as youth and adults move to the city seeking employment. During the sixteen-day event, prices for everything from restaurant meals to entertainment can skyrocket. In most cases, but not always, the cost of living returns to normal after the Games.

Legacy of Olympic Debt

Every host city wants to have a debt-free Olympics, particularly since the IOC assumes no financial responsibility for any debt incurred from staging the Games. However, it's easy for construction projects to come in significantly over budget. Labour disputes, overtime pay for workers, mismanagement, inflation, and financial graft can all increase costs. Furthermore, after the Games, sports facilities may be more expensive to maintain than originally anticipated. It takes accurate budget forecasting and careful management to ensure the games come in under budget.

In 1976, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau made the famous quote that "the Olympics could no more run a deficit than a man could have a baby." However, the Montreal Summer Games, projected to cost $300 million, ran a deficit of over one billion dollars. The provincial and federal government assumed most of the debt - partly by holding a national lottery - but Montreal taxpayers were still stuck paying off $200 million. Throughout the 1980s, Montreal's experience discouraged other cities from bidding for the Olympic Games.

Money Spent on the Bid could be Spent Elsewhere

A successful Olympic bid requires a massive injection of funds by several levels of government. Critics of the Vancouver Olympic bid point out that the provincial government is committing millions of dollars to Olympic projects at the same time that it is making severe cutbacks to health, education, and other social programs.

Policies Affecting Renters and the Poor and Homeless

There are several ways in which renters and the poor and homeless can be negatively affected, both before and during the Games:

  • Removing the Homeless
  • Tennant Displacement

Poor and homeless people tend to frequent the city's downtown core, near low-rent hotels and homeless shelters. This makes them highly visible to the media and tourists, and is embarrassing for a city's image. Prior to an Olympic event, police often make "street sweeps" - harassing and even arresting homeless people to force them off the streets and out of public view.

In addition, landlords of low-rent hotels may evict tenants to make room for Olympic tourists paying exorbitant rates. In British Columbia, 1,000 people were evicted from hotels located in the city's East Side during Expo '86. Apartment owners hoping to increase profits may also try to force out current tenants. Methods used can include eviction, raising rents to the point where the tenant chooses to move, or converting permanent rental accommodation into temporary hotel accommodation. In Calgary in 1987 and 1988, newspapers reported several cases where landlords tried to force out tenants to make room for outsiders willing to pay higher rent. It's likely that Calgary's high vacancy rate at the time prevented more incidents.

How the IOC Chooses a Host City for an Olympic Games

A breakdown of the formal evaluation process

There are five stages in the process to select an Olympic Games host city:

" Selection of the city as the country's official candidate city " Preparation of a formal bid detailing the city's plans for holding the Olympics and presentation of the bid to the IOC " An initial selection phase in which an IOC committee examines the bid from each candidate city. The committee publishes a report giving each city an overall mark based on their performance in several areas. The report establishes which cities make the short list for final selection. " A visit by the IOC to the candidate cities on the shortlist, followed by publication of a final report " A final presentation by candidate cities, followed by IOC members voting to choose the host city

The Olympic Bid Committee, a group of private investors, organized Vancouver's Olympic proposal. In 1998, the group gained support from Vancouver City Council for an Olympic bid. In December 1998, the Canadian Olympic Committee selected Vancouver (and Whistler) as the candidate city for the 2010 Olympics. Vancouver beat out both Calgary and Quebec City in the competition. In June 1999, the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation was created to see the bid process through to completion. In March 2002, Vancouver City Council formally endorsed the bid.

In July 2002, the IOC Candidature Acceptance Working Group published its report on bids submitted by eight candidate cities. The IOC assigned each city technical marks in a number of areas, including general infrastructure, transportation, accommodation, government support, and public opinion. The report gave Vancouver and Salzburg high marks, and stated that both Pyeongchang and Berne, Switzerland met the minimum benchmark for hosting the Winter Games. (Berne withdrew from the competition following a referendum in which voters rejected taking out loans to co-finance the Games). On November 14, 2002, The City of Vancouver, the Resort Municipality of Whistler, the Government of Canada, the Province of B.C., the Canadian Olympic Committee, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee entered into an agreement setting out the rights and responsibilities of each group if the Vancouver-Whistler bid was successful.

In March 2003, the IOC Evaluation Commission visited Vancouver and Whistler. In May 2003 the IOC released its final report. The IOC's comments on the Vancouver bid were mainly positive, but officials expressed concern over the winding two-hour drive between Vancouver and Whistler. Their evaluation of Pyeongchang questioned whether the plans for building an alpine ski run were feasible. In Salzburg's case, IOC felt the number of world-class ski facilities had led organizers to spread out the venues to the point where it would increase costs and be difficult to manage.

Financing the Olympic Games

The cost of hosting an Olympic Games falls into two categories:
  • The initial bid to the IOC
  • Costs associated with pre-Game preparation and staging the event

Vancouver's initial bid to the IOC cost nearly $35 million. The government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia contributed $9.1 million each. The City of Vancouver committed a total of $750,000. The remaining amount came from fundraising and donations by corporate and private donors.

The Olympic Games budget is estimated at nearly $3 billion and can be broken down into four major categories:

Expenditure Cost (Millions) Capital Costs* 620
Costs of Operating the Games 1,455
Transportation Upgrades** 614
Contingency Fund for Cost Overruns and Unexpected Expenses 203
Total 2,892

(Source: Report by the Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia. The report emphasized that these are the minimum expected costs)

*Costs for upgrading existing sports facilities and constructing new sports venues
**Includes a major upgrade to the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler

Who Pays for the Games?

Because the cost of holding an Olympic event is beyond the reach of many cities, the IOC requires financial commitments from higher levels of government. The Vancouver bid splits costs between the municipal, provincial, and federal government, with British Columbia paying the highest share.

Provincial Government

Costs Item Amount (millions $)
Capital Costs 310
Highway Upgrades 614
Security and Medical Costs at the Games 101
Contribution toward Paralympics  10
Sports Development  10
Grant to First Nations 10
Contingency Fund 139
Other 54
Total  1248

The provincial government hopes to regain some of the funds spent on the Winter Games through increased economic activity.

Federal Government 

Costs Item Amount (millions)
Capital Costs 310
Other 20
Total  330*

*This number is expected to increase

City of Vancouver 

Costs Item Amount (millions)
Hockey Arena 2.5 
Vancouver Athlete's Village ~167*

*The City of Vancouver expects to recoup the entire cost of building the Athlete's Village, both by selling the land after the Winter Games, and through a $30 million contribution from the provincial and federal governments.

Additional costs to the city will come from policing the Games and from the loss of parking revenues and rent from city-owned buildings.

With a few exceptions, government funding doesn't cover costs associated with operating the Games. Organizers expect to recoup most of the $1455 million cost of operating the games through revenues from ticket sales, sponsorships, and television rights.

Projected Revenues from the 2010 Winter Games

Source Amount (millions $) 
Television Revenues* 600
Local Sponsorships 396
Ticket Sales 218
Vancouver's revenue from The Olympic Partners (TOP) sponsorship program 131 
Total 1345

*NBC is paying the IOC approximately $1.3 billion for rights to broadcast the 2010 Winter Games, but it is unclear how much of this will go to Vancouver

What About Cost Overruns?

The IOC requires candidate cities to sign a contract absolving the IOC of any financial responsibility for costs associated with hosting the Olympic Games. In addition, the British Columbia government agreed in writing to assume financial responsibility for any cost overruns. The province also signed an agreement exempting the City of Vancouver from any debt. Unless the province is able to recoup the money through other methods, provincial taxpayers will be responsible for any cost overruns.

Analysis of the Vancouver Bid Estimate

In August 2002, the Office of the British Columbia Auditor General published a report reviewing the Vancouver bid. The report concluded that, overall, the estimated costs were reasonable, but highlighted several areas of concern:

  • Vancouver's estimate of revenue from ticket sales assumes the number of tickets sold will be greater than the two previous Winter Games
  • Ticket prices at premium events are higher than normal for the Vancouver market, which may reduce sales
  • Between now and 2010, the IOC may lower the amount of funds given to the host city from the sale of broadcast rights
  • Between now and 2010, the IOC may reduce the percentage of funds given to the host city from the TOC sponsorship program
  • The province's contingency fund may not cover the effects of inflation
  • The province will need to launch a major marketing campaign to realize the full economic benefits of hosting an Olympic Games
  • The province may have underestimated construction costs. The industry has been depressed in recent years, keeping costs artificially low.
  • World events could substantially heighten the threat level at the Games, increasing security costs

Opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Bid

Politicians and social activists joined forces to oppose the Vancouver bid

Despite widespread business community support, the Vancouver bid has been controversial. Critics argue the BC government shouldn't be spending millions on the Winter Games at the same time it is making significant social spending cutbacks. Furthermore, politicians representing Vancouver's East Side are determined to prevent a repeat of Expo '86. Area residents were overlooked for jobs on the World's Fair site and tenants were evicted from low-rent hotels to make room for tourists paying much higher rates.

Organized Opposition

The No Games 2010 Coalition spearheaded opposition to the Vancouver bid. The Coalition's mandate included creating "an active mobilization against the Olympic bid," and promoting "the collective vision of a just, democratic society that uses public funds for public priorities." Their strategy to kill the Vancouver bid included:

  • Encouraging opponents to write to the IOC voicing their concerns
  • Lobbying governments to hold a referendum to allow the public to decide whether Vancouver should host the Winter Games
  • Attempting to draw media attention to the opposition
  • Staging demonstrations during the inspection tour by the IOC evaluation team

The No side had mixed success gaining media attention. (In a recent CBC interview, a spokesperson complained that the media was showing more interest in the Coalition now that Vancouver had won, than they had during the entire period leading up to the final IOC vote). Some argue that mainstream media coverage was biased toward the Yes side - CanWest Global, which owns the National Post and both the Vancouver Sun and Province, donated $1 million worth of free advertising for the Games. By contrast, the No side had a very limited budget.

The coalition's greatest success came from launching a lawsuit to try and force the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) to return a $1.76 million donation to the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation. The Coalition argued that ICBC acted outside the bounds of the Insurance Act, and was attempting to recoup the donated funds by raising car insurance rates. News of the lawsuit reached IOC members, who were surprised to learn that there was opposition to the bid.

The planned demonstrations during the IOC inspection tour didn't take place. Instead, organizers allowed groups opposed to the Vancouver-Whistler bid, including First Nations band members and a Green Party MLA, to meet with the IOC evaluation team. While the meeting was brief, the No side felt that IOC members listened to their concerns.

Political Opposition

City of Vancouver Olympic Plebiscite

In 2002, newly elected Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell promised that, if the BC government refused to hold a province-wide referendum, Vancouver would hold its own referendum on the Winter Games. The Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation opposed any referendum because they were concerned that a "No" vote would negatively impact Vancouver's chances.

When it became clear that a province-wide referendum wouldn't take place, and that a citywide referendum was too expensive, Vancouver held a plebiscite. A record 46 percent of voters turned out for the plebiscite, held on February 22, 2003. Sixty-four percent supported Vancouver's participation in the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Using the Olympics to Help Vancouver's Dispossessed

Impact of Olympics on Community Coalition

In 2001, several community organizations formed the Impact of Olympics on Community Coalition (IOCC) to serve as a watchdog over the bid process. In August 2002, the IOCC presented the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation with twenty-two recommendations. In response, the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation put together a "2010 Inclusive Inner City Commitment Statement." It's preface states that the purpose of the Commitment Statement is to "maximize the opportunities and mitigate potential impacts in Vancouver's inner-city neighbourhoods from hosting the 2010 Winter Games." It guarantees that renters won't be evicted to make way for tourists, and commits to converting a section of the athlete's village into social housing and to providing inner-city residents with affordable tickets. The statement was included in the Vancouver bid book.

City Councilor Jim Green

Vancouver City Councilor Jim Green used the Olympic bid and his influence on Vancouver City Council to gain concessions for the city's homeless. Elected in 2002, Green is a long-time advocate for residents in the Downtown Eastside, a section of Vancouver known for its high percentage of homeless people and drug addicts.

In 2001, the provincial NDP government purchased an abandoned Woodward's department store building and announced plans to build 245 units of affordable co-operative housing. In 2002, the recently elected Liberal government froze the project. In protest, homeless people picketed outside the store for three months.

Green threatened that, unless the province stuck to the original plan, he would use his council position to ensure the City of Vancouver did not support the Olympic bid. Eventually, the two sides reached an agreement whereby the City of Vancouver purchased the building and the provincial Housing Department funded 100 units of social housing.

The IOC Chooses the Host City for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games

Politics played a role in Salzburg's early elimination and Pyeongchang's strong finish

The International Olympic Committee announced the host city for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games on July 2, 2003. The announcement was made on the first day of the Committee's 115th session, held in Prague, Czech Republic. It took two rounds of voting, conducted by secret ballot, to select a winner. The results are as follows:

First Round

Total number of votes cast: 107
Abstentions: 3
Number of votes needed to win:54

Pyeongchang, South Korea: 51 votes
Vancouver, Canada: 40 votes
Salzburg, Austria: 16 votes

The country that received the fewest votes, Austria, was dropped from the list for the second round.

Second Round

Total number of votes cast: 109
Abstentions: 3
Number of votes needed to win: 55

Vancouver, Canada: 56 votes
Pyeongchang, South Korea: 54 votes

The final result was not surprising, since the IOC's working report gave Vancouver high technical marks. However, Pyeongchang's second place finish was unexpected. Organizers of the Vancouver bid considered Salzburg to be their main competition. The Austrian bid included plans to locate one Olympic village in the world class ski resort of Kitzbuel and another in Salzburg itself, a renowned cultural center and Mozart's birthplace. By contrast, Pyeongchang did not even have a downhill ski run. In total, the tiny South Korean mountain town would need to build eight of the thirteen venues required for the winter games. Nonetheless, Pyeongchang came within three votes of winning on the first ballot. Meanwhile, despite the support of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, Austria received only sixteen votes and was knocked out of contention.

Analysts believe three factors played a role in South Korea's favor:

  • The international political climate
  • Financial considerations
  • Future Olympic Aspirations of IOC members

The International Political Climate

Pyeongchang's final presentation emphasized that the Winter Games could help ease tensions between South Korea and Communist North Korea. Given the current dispute between North Korea and the United States over its nuclear weapons program, it's not surprising that this had an impact on IOC members.

Financial Considerations

Pyeongchang promised free flights for Olympic teams and cheap accommodation. This type of aid is particularly attractive for poorer IOC member countries, as it increases their ability to participate in the Olympics. Even without the guarantees, accommodation in Pyeonchang is inexpensive compared to Vancouver and Salzburg.

Future Olympic Aspirations of IOC Members

With fifty-eight members, Europe controls a large block of IOC votes. This should have worked in Salzburg's favor. Instead, it's believed several European countries chose Vancouver over Salzburg, both to increase their own chances in 2012 and weaken those of a competitor. The IOC prefers not to hold consecutive games on the same continent. Several European cities, including Madrid and Paris, are bidding for the 2012 Summer Games. A Vancouver win increased the possibility that the 2012 Summer Games would be held in Europe, while virtually eliminating New York City from the competition. It's also believed that New York City's hopes for 2012 kept the United States from supporting Vancouver.

What Happens Now: An Olympic Timeline

What British Columbians can expect over the next seven years, and what it will take for the Winter Olympic Games to be a success

Projected Olympic Games Timeline

  • In 2003, the Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (OCOG) takes over from the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation. A Chief Executive and Board of Directors will be appointed.
  • In 2004, work begins on the alpine ski venues at Whistler Nordic Centre, where the biathlon, cross-country skiing, and ski jumping events will be held. Construction begins on renovations to the Sea to Sky Highway connecting Vancouver and Whistler.
  • In 2005, construction begins on the speed skating oval, located at Simon Fraser University, and on the Whistler sliding center, where the bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton events will be held. Upgrades begin at Cypress Bowl, venue for the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.
  • In 2006, OCOG officials attend the Winter Olympic Games at Torino, Italy. During the closing ceremonies, the mayor of Torino hands the Olympic flag over to the mayor of Vancouver. Work begins on several Vancouver indoor sports facilities, including the Pacific Coliseum where the figure skating events will be held, and on the new curling facility at Nat Christie stadium.
  • In 2007, upgrades begin on GM Place, the venue for hockey. Several outdoor facilities at Whistler and Cypress Bowl officially open.
  • In 2008, OCOG officials begin selecting volunteers. Upgrades begin on BC Place, site of several events, to improve accessibility " In 2009, tickets go on sale. In October, the Olympic torch begins its journey from Olympia, Greece, to Vancouver.

Will Vancouver have a successful Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games?

Several factors will determine the success of the 2010 Winter Games:
  • Whether or not capital costs for transportation and construction of Olympic venues fall within bid estimates
  • Whether or not Vancouver's share of revenue from the Games meets or exceeds the Vancouver bid projections
  • The International political climate in 2010
  • The ability of organizers to appease Games' opponents
  • Canada's performance at the event

Capital costs can easily outstrip projections. The province has set aside a contingency fund to meet cost overruns and other unexpected expenses. However, a report by the office of British Columbia's Auditor General expressed concern that extra costs might exceed the amount in the fund. Furthermore, revenue projections are based partially on the expectation that ticket sales will exceed the previous two Olympic Winter Games. A major international threat like the September 11 attacks, or a health crisis like the recent SARS scare, could negatively impact ticket sales.

The No Coalition has vowed to maintain a watchdog role to ensure Olympic organizers keep their promises to Vancouver's poorer residents. Besides ensuring no one is displaced to make way for tourists, the Coalition wants Eastside residents and businesses to benefit from increased employment and business opportunities associated with an Olympic event. Organizers have promised that the Olympics will help revitalize the Downtown Eastside. If that doesn't happen, there could be a renewed round of public opposition, possibly culminating in demonstrations during the Winter Games.

Finally, Canada's success as a host city will be partially determined by the performance of its athletes. In 1976, Canada became the first host country not to win a gold medal. Canada also failed to win gold at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. Vancouver's win puts pressure on governments to increase sports funding to ensure Canada doesn't fail to win gold for a third time. The day after the IOC selected Vancouver, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps announced she would ask cabinet for extra sports funding, both for athletes and sports development in general. Experts estimate the federal government will need to raise its annual budget for Sport Canada from $75 million to $120 million (Source: Globe and Mail, July 3, 2003).

Related Links

Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation Website

International Olympic Committee Website

No Games 2010 Coalition Website