Ex-Vancouver mayor confident Olympics cost is worth it

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

On the eve of the Olympics, the man who was this city’s face of the Winter Games was holding court on a universe of social causes, from homelessness and drug addiction to more rights for the disabled.

Throughout the afternoon event, timed to the screening of a film about his life as a quadriplegic, there was barely a reference to anything Olympic.

In fact, Sam Sullivan, the former Vancouver mayor who in 2006 appeared in his wheelchair for the ceremonial handoff of the Olympic flag in Torino, says he doesn’t have much interest in the sporting events.

It’s not that he’s unhappy the Olympics are here. It’s just that for him, he says, winning the Olympics for Vancouver was never about the Games.

“My goal was to assure that we had a better city when this is over,” Sullivan says. “At this point, we wouldn’t even have to have the events and we’d still be way ahead.”

For the thousands who have come here to celebrate the highest levels of athletic achievement, Sullivan’s remarks may sound, at the very least, impolitic.

But the former mayor’s comments also underscore the controversial quest by Olympic host cities to use the international sporting spectacle as a catalyst for massive urban and regional redevelopment projects.

Vancouver is no exception. Among the larger Olympic-related additions to the region’s landscape:

  • An $800 million convention center complex on the city’s waterfront.
  • A $1.1 billion high-rise residential development that now serves as the athletes’ downtown Olympic Village.
  • The $600 million Sea-to-Sky Highway, a two-lane scenic road now carrying thousands of fans to the Olympic Alpine events in Whistler.

As in other Olympic host cities, notably Athens in 2004, the jaw-dropping price tags have spawned vocal opposition.

Chris Shaw, one of the city’s most strident critics, says the redevelopment did not include Vancouver’s poor downtown East Side, home to hundreds of homeless and drug addicts.

He also thinks the end cost of the Games, including the huge effort to haul in snow to shore up rain-damaged venues on Cypress Mountain, will soar well past the Games’ current $6 billion cost.

Sullivan rejects the criticism, saying the high-rise residential development, now containing 1,100 units with 5,000 to come, will add to the city’s much-needed housing stock.

An added benefit of the building boom, he says, was partially to shield the city from the financial crisis that has gripped much of the world. “This is not a scandal,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan’s inclination to speak his mind, even if it rubs people the wrong way, is one of the reasons he is no longer Vancouver’s mayor, says Paul Tennant, retired political science professor at the University of British Columbia.

Tennant says Sullivan, who uses a wheelchair after a skiing accident when he was 19, is not a classic political creature who sought out issues and relationships to advance his career.

“He wasn’t a good public pretender,” Tennant says. “He’s not a faker; he’s not a phony.”

Except for a stint as torchbearer when the Olympic flame arrived in the city Friday, Sullivan does not have the public profile he held in Torino. But people, remembering that moment in Italy, still seek him out.

“I never doubted the tremendous benefit this would have for the city,” he says. “The day after the sporting events are over, I still get to wake up in Vancouver.”

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