A Q&A with UBC Olympic Games researcher Rob VanWynsberghe
What makes this Olympic Games special?
This might be one of the last times that you see a world-class city hosting the Olympic Games. If you go back to the bid phase for 2012, it was New York, Paris and London. At the time, everyone thought that the Olympic Games were going to be the bastion of world-class cities but that hasn’t happened.
The Olympics is like a brand. If you want to spread that brand, you go to places where that brand hasn’t received as much exposure, like Brazil. You are able to associate the Olympics with fostering this economy.
What makes London particularly special this year is that the Olympics come on the tails of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Together this is going to be one massive party for London and it will be exciting to watch how the Olympic spirit affects the city.
What are the issues to watch as London plays host to the 2012 Games?
London has a grassroots group—a lot like Vancouver—who are concerned about the amount of money being spent on the Games—probably close to $20 billion. London began outreach immediately to address some of the concerns people were having.
London has refurbished the Five Boroughs area for the Games—an area that typically houses lower and middle-class workers. It was a stroke of genius to use the Games as an opportunity to provide new living spaces for this group. This ties together the kinds of things that the Games typically do in terms of infrastructure and housing but for a sector of the population that has historically been marginalized.
It seems like there is always local opposition to the Olympic Games. How likely is it that we will see protests of some kind in London?
I will be surprised if there are no protests in London. With the city’s history, the amount of money being spent, and the economy the way it is, I’d be really surprised if nothing happened.
Typically there is a period where there is opposition and protest but then as you get closer to the actual event, there are concerns about the city embarrassing itself while the world is watching. The patterns that we see emerge over and over again are that for the period of hosting the actual event, there is no protest.
The other thing is there are massive economic changes going on in the country, including some belt-tightening in the area of higher education. If you look at the student protests in Montreal right now and then consider the fact that the U.K. is in the process of raising tuition fees to exorbitant levels, closing university and college programs, and professors’ jobs are being threatened, you could see some protests from that sector. To see the higher-education sector involved would be fairly unprecedented in terms of sport mega-events.
You’ve been studying the economic, social and environmental impacts of the 2010 Games in Vancouver. What will be some of the impacts of hosting the Games in London?
London intended that the major legacy would be around physical activity—they’ve put a lot of money toward it. With the Games so close, there are already discussions about why they haven’t had the kinds of impacts they wanted to have in terms of raising levels of physical activity across the country.
What are some of the major differences between hosting a Winter Olympics and a Summer Olympics?
The summer Olympics involve a lot more athletes and a lot more countries so perhaps it is more truly international. That international flavour will fit nicely into the multicultural framing of London.
I think London will try to overcome some negative images that Vancouver never had to. The city is associated with being expensive, dirty and having a lot of racial strife. But it is one of the most important cities in the world and there seems to be so much support for the country. Anyone who has one grandma who is British will be tuning in. It’ll be hard for London to lose on this.
Personally what fascinates you about the Olympics?
What fascinates me as a researcher above all is the mobilization of resources. It’s like a crisis; it’s like a war. I’m just fascinated by how people come together and they pull something off in a very short time by collaborating. On the personal side, I like the fact that emotion sneaks up on me when I’m not expecting it. You’re suddenly vying for an athlete that you didn’t even know and you feel fuzzy. Those things are humanizing and interesting.