Freestyle spending

According to The Vancouver Poverty Olympics, a group of citizens who oppose the 2010 winter games, Vancouver’s lavish spending in order to host the Olympic Games could have been more justly spent. Hosting the Olympics resulted in a loss of some major cash that could have, in theory, alleviated local social disasters, such as the devastating issue of homelessness. The Poverty Olympics seeks to shed some light on the ugly side of a city named one of the world’s most livable places by the United Nations.

When it comes to poverty, there’s no competing with Vancouver. According to Jean Swanson, one of the main organizers of the event, there are 700 homeless people around the downtown Eastside neighborhood and another 2,600 in the metro Vancouver area. “British Columbia has had the highest child poverty rate for six years in a row [ . . . ] We have the lowest minimum wage and the highest cost of living in Canada,” said Swanson.

Two years ago, Jean Swanson, along with a coalition of anti-poverty groups in B.C., thought that it was about time low-income people had the chance to attend the Olympics. Considering the tickets for the opening ceremonies can go up to $1,100, they decided to create their own games, open to the public and free of charge.

Although the organization is relatively new, it has had huge success. This year, their province-wide toilet plunger relay hit 20 cities before reaching downtown Vancouver for the opening ceremonies. The event even attracted foreign media, “We’ve had coverage from Japan, Finland and two or three interviews in Germany, we also just did an interview with the L.A. Times today,” said Swanson.

“We’re hoping that they will embarrass Canada in the eyes of the world, so politicians can get their butts together and do something to reduce poverty and homelessness,” she said.

This year’s Poverty Olympics mascots included Chewy the Rat, Itchy the Bedbug and Creepy the Cockroach — all frequent visitors of the hotel rooms being rented out by low-income people in the downtown Eastside. Their “games” — better defined as skits — were oozing with sardonic messages. “Housing Hurdles,” put on by the Downtown Eastside Women’s Center, and “Wrestling for the Candy,” a duel between kids and an “evil developer” are two examples.

Swanson says that the Olympics are all about real estate. Developers have been building condos and advertising more heavily than ever before. “They’re building in our neighborhood, which is displacing low income residents,” said Swanson.

The games also included a “Broken Promise Slalom.” “The skiers were Stephen Harper and Gordon Campbell [ . . . ] and they missed every gate, which was labeled with an Olympic promise,” explained Swanson.

In order to win over the 2010 Winter Olympics, the games were dressed up as a socially responsible event that would improve the city’s facilities, public transit and, most importantly, expand available social housing. Vancouver’s Olympic partners made a few Layton-worthy promises, including the pledge to create an affordable housing legacy and to ensure that poor residents were not displaced or evicted due to the Games.

I asked Swanson what the government of B.C. did to try to fulfill their promises. Apparently, my question was funny. After having a good laugh, she mentioned that the government built some shelters, for which the funding runs out on April 1. Other than that, another initiative the government bragged about was the buying out of hotels for the homeless in the downtown Eastside. However, according to Swanson, the hotels were already full when they bought them, so they couldn’t even provide any additional housing.

“They’re hiding the homeless,” said Swanson. Instead of addressing the issue, the B.C. government haphazardly swept the homeless off the streets, before international visitors started pouring in. “Out of sight, out of mind, eh?” Great work BC.

The purpose of Poverty Olympics is to strengthen the message that the $7 billion spent on the Olympics could have instead been spent on eradicating poverty, and could have been successful. “People living in a slum hotel getting bitten by bed bugs and having cockroaches prance over them aren’t too impressed by the new $178 million skating oval,” said Swanson. “This has become a corporate spectacle for the rich,” she said.

In the short term, Poverty Olympics believes that it is pressures from concerned groups not unlike theirs that is responsible for the fact governments are taking small steps toward a change, even if they are just temporary.

The next time you’re out shopping and come down with a little Olympic fever in the face of 2010 merchandise, ask yourself, “Who am I really supporting?” It would be nice to imagine the money ending up with those who need it most, but let’s get real. For now, the rich are getting richer, while the rest are left with toilet plungers, waiting for some change.

Talia Joundi is a first-year student at the University of Manitoba.