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Building economic relationships through the Games


As the clock winds down to Vancouver’s Feb. 22 plebiscite on the Olympic bid the rhetoric, predictably, is getting more intense, although the arguments are mostly rote responses now. Anyone who’s been paying any attention can probably recite them by heart.

Supporters talk about the value of sport to youth, the cultural events that will flourish, the value of increased international exposure, the legacy of sports facilities and infrastructure, and the intangibles like pride and sharing our corner of the world with the rest of mankind.

Those on the No side say it’s too much money for a 16-day party, it’s going to cost way more than organizers estimate and taxpayers will be stuck for the bill, the money would be better spent on health care and education, the only ones who will benefit will be the rich, and, of course, the strongest argument of all: "what’s in it for me?"

Both sides have come by their arguments honestly; the Olympic Games have proven all the above points true, at one time or another. However, the idea that the Olympics are nothing more than an expensive 16-day party is old school thinking, about as likely today as Karl Schranz getting kicked out of the Games for being a professional athlete.

David Faulks is an Australian who has pioneered a more lasting approach to hosting events like the Olympics: building trade and investment relationships through the Games that carry on for years after the events are over. Faulks has been involved in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Sydney’s Games in 2000, Salt Lake last year, Athens’ 2004 Olympics and he has just started to work with Beijing on their 2008 Olympics.

Faulks, who was in Vancouver and Whistler last week, says the Olympics aren’t a panacea for all a host’s problems, but they do present economic opportunities.

"The Olympics can accelerate your plan," Faulks said repeatedly. "But you have to have a plan."

Sydney had a plan and according to Faulks has realized $6 billion in trade and investment through business relationships built before, during and after the Games. And Sydney, like all other Olympic hosts, got started late. The Vancouver bid, Faulks said, is far ahead of any other Games organization he has been involved with in thinking about trade and investment relationships.

Olympic supporters in Vancouver frequently point to Expo 86 and what it did for putting British Columbia on the map. While Expo was a success in many ways the full potential of the event was not fully realized. Vancouver Councillor Jim Green pointed out one example in an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sun last weekend. Expo didn’t create any lasting jobs for people on the downtown eastside, but the construction of General Motors Place included on-the-job training that has led to permanent jobs for some downtown eastside residents. Green feels the Olympics could do similar things. But as Faulks said, you have to have to know what you want to achieve.

One of Utah’s motivations for hosting the 2002 Olympics was to show the rest of the United States and the world that Mormons aren’t weird and that the state welcomes visitors and businesses. Those who actually went to the Games probably figured that out, but Faulks suggests Utah could have done a lot more to build on that. The opportunities are greater than just incremental increases in tourism and conferences through television exposure.

To take full advantage of the Games, we have to consider what British Columbia’s plan is; there were some hints in Tuesday’s Throne Speech. Then think about who else could benefit from the exposure of the Olympics and how some of their interests might work with B.C.’s goals. Investment isn’t just going to fall out of the sky, but if, for example, one of B.C.’s goals is to open up the northern part of the province, perhaps there are partnership possibilities with the Scandinavian countries, and companies, that have similar climates and geography. A company like Ericsson, a Swedish Olympic team sponsor, is a world leader in microwave transmission systems, which might be of interest to B.C.

British Columbia’s forest industry could use the Games as an opportunity to showcase B.C. forest products and to develop new markets for those products, which could benefit some of those Interior towns wondering what the Games will do for them.

It takes more imagination and planning than just saying No, but done properly the Olympics could provide economic returns to much of the province for generations to come.

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