Winter Games set for their own torch trauma

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 April, 2008, 12:00am

City Views Vancouver

The Olympic torch relay protests in London, Paris and San Francisco last week had an air of familiarity for Vancouver residents.

Well before the recent unrest and subsequent crackdown in Tibet, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics were in the crosshairs of this city's persistent protest movement.

It may be two years before the Olympics arrive in BC, but already there is nary an Olympics-related event that occurs without threat of arrests and major disruptions.

The Olympics shouldn't be about politics, they are about sport, goes the mantra of John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Games' organising committee.

'It's not reasonable to think that if you're going to have an event that people will not express themselves,' he says. 'But we hope it will be as peaceful as possible.'

The Beijing Games' touchstone issue has been Tibet; the spotlighted issue for the Vancouver Games it seems will be the city's growing economic disparity.

Since 2005, the number of homeless people in Vancouver has gone up 19 per cent, according to data released last week.

Volunteers canvassed streets and shelters, peered under cardboard shelters, crawled in ducts and under bridges and talked to more than 2,500 people. They found that the number of people without homes has more than doubled since 2002.

Most troubling are the chronically homeless, mostly single adults who have been homeless for at least a year. As many as 70 per cent of them suffer both a drug addiction and mental illness.

'I just can't take heart in people living in the streets,' says Judy Graves, an advocate for the homeless. 'It destroys lives and brings about early deaths. These are sons and daughters and parents.'

One advocacy group predicts the number of homeless will triple by the time the Games begin in 2010.

'Whether the number is 1,200 or 1,500 or 2,000, that number of people living on the streets in a city as prosperous as Vancouver is just not acceptable,' said Faye Wightman, of the Vancouver Foundation.

This week, three community groups will lodge a formal complaint to the United Nations saying the Olympics are resulting in the violation of human rights for hundreds of residents evicted from their homes.

Vancouver's homelessness issue is already on the radar of the United Nations. Two years ago, a UN committee compared the problem to a national emergency.

The scene is being set for widespread discontent as the Games draw closer and it seems reasonable to wonder whether the Vancouver Games' torch relay will suffer the same woes that have befallen the Beijing relay.

Games organiser Mr Furlong says the question he gets asked about the most is where the relay will travel in Canada.

The plan is for the flame to make its way through 1,000 Canadian towns in 100 days, using a battalion of 12,000 runners.

It seems unlikely that domestic Canadian issues would ignite any trouble internationally.

In any case, Mr Furlong says that it is doubtful that the torch will travel overseas, although this is due to cost considerations, not political ones.

It's just as well. Vancouver's homegrown protesters will probably give the organisers more than enough to worry about.

Petti Fong

Tomorrow: New York

The homelessness issue is already on the radar. Two
years ago, a UN committee compared the problem to a national emergency