As billions await the London Olympics' opening ceremonies, global urbanists are already deep into the sport of navel-gazing. Has London mimicked former host Beijing, focusing on national reputation-building and expensive attention-seeking architectural icons? Or have they followed in the carbon-footsteps of Vancouver, the last Winter Games host, with weighty aspirations to use the Olympics as a catalyst for sustainable and inclusive city-building?
Watching the London Games approach has brought back my own memories of our experiences with the 2010 Vancouver Games. Olympic host cities of all stripes share a rare and special collective memory and experience. The days leading up to the 2010 Games were filled with hand-wringing, anxiousness and criticisms.
From weather fears to concerns that locals wouldn't truly embrace the Games, there was lots to lose sleep over for VANOC and its many partners. Indeed, for Vancouver, tangles and tragedy struck early. Who could have predicted warm weather with no snow, a cauldron malfunction during the Opening Ceremonies, and most sadly, a devastating athlete death on the first day? In those first moments, things felt grim.
For those of us in city-building the big work of facilities-design was long done, because it had to be, along with developing the Olympics Transportation Plan, and envisioning public space transformations, "look-of-the-city" elements and spectacles. But the logistics of being a good host to thousands of athletes, media and visitors kept everyone tense and hopping.
Like in London, officials were obsessed with Olympics branding issues, with predictable debates about free speech in the public realm. Hundreds of meetings were organized for local and regional economic development, as well as special events hosted with global partners such as the Clinton Climate Initiative and Sir Richard Branson.
A big part of our job during the Games would be as ambassadors to the global media, as well as to political, city-building and economic development delegations intrigued by our preparations (especially our LEED-ND Platinum Olympic Athletes Village, dubbed by the U.S. Green Building Council as the "greenest community in North America" at the beginning of the Games). We also kept busy with unexpected challenges, like negotiating an improved re-design of the unfortunate Olympic Cauldron condition, infamously hidden behind harsh chain-link fencing.
It might help Londoners to know that there had been plenty of pre-Games grumbling in Vancouver too. Many pledged to "get out of town during the Games;" others complained "we never should have gone after the Olympics." We, like the rest of the world, had been affected by the global economic crisis in 2008, and debates about whether the Games would help or cost us economically abounded.
I followed with great interest London Mayor Boris Johnson’s recent call to grumpy pre-Olympics Londoners to "put a sock in it." Although this is a bit more aggressive language than we Canadians might have used, our own mayor also had to encourage Vancouverites to stay positive in the days leading up to the opening ceremonies. The concept of a "pre-Olympics funk" is well understood by host cities. There was considerable worry that Vancouverites would put on an unhappy face when the visitors arrived and cameras started rolling.
When I was interviewed by Nate Berg in Places Journal in 2010, here’s how I put it:
Past Olympic cities have talked about the emotional roller coaster that happens before an Olympics, and sometimes you have to go through the troughs to get to the high points. I think our city has had that. Vancouver is a very self-aware city. We can be tough on ourselves and that’s one reason we’ve achieved as much as we have. But it can be a challenge to balance between booster-ism and cynicism about our place in the world, and how well we’ve achieved our goals around the Olympics and around sustainability. But as we get closer and closer to the day, it’s just more excitement and less worry. As they say, at this point it’s like a luge sled: no brakes and limited steering!
As it turned out, organizers needn’t have worried. Vancouverites and visitors teamed up to make the 2010 Olympics a new benchmark in Olympics-related civic transformation and celebrations. The public embraced the complete Olympic experience in the city and its streets like never before, fostered by beautiful shorts-weather and a city-led focus on making the Olympic energy accessible to everyone, not just those who had tickets. The whole city was the Olympics, something that changed us as a city forever, and changed the Country and the Olympics as well.
Vancouver’s Games will be remembered not for our gold medals, though that final gold in hockey, defeating the U.S. in overtime, has become part of Canada's collective cultural memory. It will be remembered not for the things that were out of the host city’s control, the mechanical glitches or the initial media snickers. It will be remembered for how the organizers responded and recovered, and how the city celebrated. It will be remembered for perhaps the strongest effect on national unity, identity and pride across a host country seen in recent memory. In almost every way, Vancouver’s Games were the opposite to Beijing’s, certainly in the budgets involved - but if Beijing’s goal was national reputation and identity-building, Vancouver’s Games accomplished that in spades, without a single piece of iconic star-chitecture.
For city-builders, the more detailed key legacy lessons from our Games, in adaptable and responsible facilities, public realm transformations and festival-making, and mobility/mode-shift legacies, will be the subject of my second article later this week.
What’s best for Londoners to remember is that even for a great global city like theirs, the Olympics can be an incredible city and nation-changing moment — if its designed that way, and the people embrace it. In the end, London will hopefully be remembered as a wonderful and joyous host city, and for what Canadian commentator Stephen Brunt called the quality and power of the "collective experience." There is power, and a lasting legacy, in that.