How Vancouver is trying to make sure these Games mean something


(AP Photo/The Seattle Times, Mike Siegel)
Former Olympic downhill skier Phil Mahre, left, passes the Olympic flame to Canadian torchbearer Chamila Anthonypillai on the Canadian side of the U.S.-Canadian border at Peace Arch Park on Tuesday morning in Blaine, Wash. The Olympic flame entered the U.S. at Blaine, Wash., for the only time on its 106-day journey across Canada in the longest domestic torch relay in Olympic history.

By David Crary
The Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A carbon-neutral torch relay. A multimillion dollar partnership with Canada’s aboriginals. Bouquets for medal winners made by former prostitutes and drug addicts.

Even before the first event — and the first big protest rally — organizers of the Winter Games claim to have set new Olympic standards for environmental and social responsibility.

A progress report released Wednesday detailed the scope of the efforts by the Vancouver Organizing Committee, extending far beyond now-expected efforts to minimize environmental damage and maximize conservation.

“We have forged a new level of sustainability performance for the Olympics,” said VANOC’s CEO, John Furlong.

One of the most ambitious initiatives was to reduce and offset emissions throughout the seven-year preparation period, so that the end results would be a carbon-neutral Olympics.

With the 16 busiest days of the endeavor still ahead, organizers believe they can reach that goal. The transportation fleet includes scores of hybrid vehicles, and VANOC says these are the first Olympics with an “official supplier of carbon offsets.”

On the social-issues front, VANOC started early on with outreach to Canada’s aboriginal communities. They encompass more than 1 million of Canada’s 33 million people, and have had long-standing grievances about factors contributing to their relatively high rates of poverty, substance abuse and other social ills.

Some modest protests flared when legs of the trans-Canada torch relay passed through aboriginal reserves, but most native leaders have supported the games since VANOC signed a sweeping partnership with the four First Nation communities whose traditional lands in British Columbia overlap the Olympic region.

The leaders of these four communities — one of them, the Tsleil-Waututh, with only about 425 members — will be accorded status equivalent to head of state at the games. VANOC says native businesses have received more than $56 million in Olympic spending since 2003, and 96 aboriginal artists from across Canada were contracted to produce artworks for the venues.

“I’d give VANOC an A,” said Tewanee Joseph, CEO of the Four Host First Nations. “When it came to finding answers for the questions they had, they came to us. That’s not something you see every day in this country, where often First Nations are an afterthought.”

The games abound with aboriginal motifs, from the Inukshuk, a traditional Inuit symbol that adorns the official Vancouver 2010 logo, to the thunderbird and eagle represented on the Canadian hockey teams’ jerseys. There will be Olympic telecasts in several aboriginal languages, including Cree, Mohawk, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

Some aboriginal activists remain discontented, and even non-native protesters have adopted the slogan “No Olympics on Stolen Land.” That’s an allusion to the fact that in much of British Columbia, unlike other provinces, treaties were never signed to address the takeover of land by white settlers.

However, Lea MacKenzie, who has represented the host First Nations in their liaisons with VANOC, said most of Canada’s aboriginals hope the Olympic partnership will set an example for future initiatives benfitting their communities.

“It used to be, ‘What can we get out of these games?’ and now it’s ‘What can we contribute?'” MacKenzie said Wednesday. “This has gone beyond tokenism.”

Another target of VANOC’s outreach has been Vancouver’s inner-city neighborhoods, notably the skid-row Downtown Eastside where homelessness and drug addiction abound.

VANOC says it has spent more than $3 million on services and products from inner-city businesses, and has trained about 200 at-risk young people and newly arrived immigrants in a carpentry program whose products included the medal-ceremony podiums.

The 1,800 bouquets to be handed out at those medal ceremonies were made by what VANOC calls “marginalized” women — recovering drug addicts, victims of domestic violence, and women trying to leave the sex trade or newly released from prison.

There’s even a plan for a socially responsible lost-and-found operation during the games. An inner-city social service agency has been hired to run the operation, and the estimated 10,000 unclaimed lost items will be distributed to low-income residents.

VANOC’s efforts haven’t deterred an array of activists from planning a protest rally Friday outside the stadium where the opening ceremonies will be held.

There’s also been a “Poverty Olympics,” organized by activists seeking to draw attention to Vancouver’s social problems — though they fault federal and provincial authorities’ spending policies more than they fault VANOC.

“Visitors in 2010 are being treated to a city with almost as many homeless people as athletes competing in the games,” said the Poverty Olympics Organizing Committee. “We hope that shining the international spotlight on the dark side of our prosperous city and province might finally convince our governments to take action.”

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