Opinion » Editorial


Lessons from Beijing



Nearly two weeks after the opening ceremonies, and countless beach volleyball matches, we have learned a few things from Beijing and the Chinese hosts of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

We’ve heard a lot about Beijing’s smog. We’ve also learned that outside of Beijing, where the air is clearer and the visibility good, parts of China are as spectacular as any place on earth.

Human rights and civil liberties have long been an issue in China, and western coverage of the Olympics has included reports on the absurd process to apply for a permit to hold a demonstration in Beijing and interviews with “official” dissidents.

Internet access and the free transmission of thoughts and ideas has also been an issue.

But more than any of these anticipated stories, what has stood out about the Beijing Olympics is the Chinese people’s pride in their country.

Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, ran rampant in the decision by Chinese Politburo officials to have a pretty little girl lip sync the Hymn to the Motherland at the opening ceremonies while the voice heard was that of a girl deemed to be less attractive. There have also been questions about the ages of some Chinese gymnasts and the fireworks footprints at the opening ceremonies may have been too good to be true.

But there is an important distinction between government-mandated pride and the true pride individual Chinese are showing for their country. The two overlap at times, but setting aside the sometimes ham-handed attempts by officials to present China in a positive light, the Chinese people’s pride in their country is evident, even when viewed from thousands of kilometres away through the filters of television and newspapers.

  China has the world’s attention for 17 days because it is hosting the Olympics, and the Chinese are taking the opportunity to show the world who they are and what they can do. And they are doing it on their terms.

By contrast, at the start of the 2006 Winter Olympics the people of Torino seemed to be sitting back and waiting to see what was going to happen. By the halfway point of those Games there was some interest in Torino. And by the final weekend the city was enthusiastically embracing the Games, even if much of the rest of Italy was oblivious.

So what will the rest of the world learn about Whistler, Vancouver and British Columbia during the 2010 Olympics? There will be stories about the successes and failures of First Nations. Vancouver’s downtown eastside will be profiled. Canada’s commitments to the environment, including development of the oil sands and off-shore drilling, will likely be stories.

But will there be stories about the people of Vancouver and Whistler and their goals? We take pride in where we live and what we’ve done, but we’re less likely to take the opportunity that comes with the Games to show off. A little recognition that we live in a beautiful part of the world and that we’re nice people would seem to satisfy most of us.

Whistler has an official document, released in October 2006, that outlines our 11 strategic objectives for the 2010 Olympics. If you recall that “engaging the community in the 2010 Games experience” was one of the strategic objectives you probably have too much time on your hands.

Others among us may have specific goals for the 2010 Olympics, such as to be watching them on TV in Hawaii while earning thousands of dollars a night renting our places to tourists. That’s a Canadian-type of goal and completely honourable, up there with beating the taxman and drinking beer by the side of a lake. But perhaps we could learn a little bit from the Chinese.

And if not from the Chinese, than maybe others who have hosted the Winter Olympics. As Myles Rademan, Park City’s public affairs director, told Michel Beaudry earlier this year: “ the host town has to become a fully engaged player. Unless you’re in control of your destiny, you can’t look out for your best interests. And you can’t be in control of your destiny if you just sit back and watch.”

Rademan went on to say that Park City became known as “party central” during the 2002 Games because that was a goal it set for itself. “We organized a whole lot of things as a municipality to promote ourselves as the fun place to gather. We had a story. We had a theme. And people were drawn to that.”

Park City’s approach seems particularly relevant in light of the growing fear that many 2010 Olympic spectators may never make it to Whistler Village. Accommodation in Whistler for all the people involved in the Games is still being sorted out, and until it is there will be very little accommodation available to spectators and tourists. The longer that situation drags on the more likely it is that spectators will be bussed up from Vancouver to the Nordic centre or Creekside to watch events, and they’ll get back on busses and return to Vancouver after the events are over.

That’s not a disastrous scenario, but it’s an opportunity to tell our own story that other Olympic hosts wouldn’t forfeit without a fight.