Olympic Nightmare: Plight of the small business owner

When it comes to positively supporting the Olympics or opposing them I have to admit, I’m on the fence.

But I’ve figured out my major beef with the games and it has absolutely nothing to do with the sports. It’s the sponsors and the disastrous impact IOC policy on local small businesses. A prime example of this is the company that was being hailed as the “official restaurant of the Olympic games” I’m not going to name the company specifically, but if you’ve been watching the games or following them in any capacity you know who I am talking about.

That place is not a restaurant. It’s a fast food chain with enough clout to be sold to the public as a restaurant. I will bet you dollars to doughnuts that no athlete in any serious contention for a medal eats there. They may appear in the commercials, but when they hold up that burger, you can see a slightly uncomfortable look on their face. Like a ticket to Vancouver’s Olympic Village was in the process of being punched as the commercial was being filmed. Or a puppy was being held hostage with a Glock pressed against its brainstem.

Hell, even the Salvation Army had to pull away from giving free hot chocolate on the sidewalk under the threat of having its vending license revoked by some apparently well connected coffee shop chain owners around the station I was assigned to. If you make hot drinks, someone else offering free hot drinks outside on the sidewalk is bad for bottom line profits. The information was second hand, but confirmed by numerous sources, apparently the compromise was that the Salvation Army was only ‘allowed’ to offer water. A very clear case of a few parties bitching in the right direction to the right people and making the right threats to ruin it for those who might be a little pleased with a free cup of hot chocolate on a cold night. (As opposed to a $4.50 cup of hot chocolate.)

Makes a guy wonder how much money General Motors was given to change the name of GM Place to Canada Hockey Place – or if they did it under pure good will. I know they changed the format of the ice hockey tournament to feature NHL sized ice as opposed to International sized ice for the sake of jamming more asses in the seats.

Anyways, after all the hype and all the promise of a huge business boom for the city of Vancouver about three days into the games, something became painfully obvious. German people who flew here to enjoy the games were spending their time eating and drinking at Germany House. Dutch people were going to Heineken House. Locals were waiting in long lines and paying huge cover charges to go to provincially themed pavilions or houses of “international flavour”.

$10 for their version of a shitty macro beer and $10 for a five bite sausage. That’s after a $20 cover, free if you were a volunteer or from the country the house was themed after. Oh yeah, there was the hope of possibly getting to mingle with a few athletes. Or in the case of Slovakia house, $90 if you wanted to step foot inside and be looked down upon by the VIP section on the second level where the actual athletes hung out.

My favourite BBQ restaurant on Broadway experienced absolutely no bump in business three days into the Olympics. A corner store/pharmacy near a major transportation hub experienced a decline in business over last year, the owner wouldn’t give a number when I asked her, only commented that it wasn’t busy during the games. My favourite deli – where you can get the best Montreal Smoked Meat sandwich in Vancouver – empty during lunch hour on day 12. A restaurant situated right next to the International Broadcast Center experienced a 45% dip in business because of a large security fence erected just outside its door and choked traffic due to queue managing right by the station. (My group – the ones responsible for the queueing – actually managed to befriend the owner of the restaurant and did our best to help place their signs in easy to see areas and cautiously redirect traffic to the joint when asked the question, “Do you know of any good places to eat?”)

But there were huge lineups in the food courts less than 100 feet away, people feverishly jammed into uncomfortable food courts to mow something I wouldn’t consider edible and unless you were an official Olympic sponsor, you received no help. Volunteers and employees were specifically told to hide any labels from companies who weren’t official sponsors. Drink from the official travel mug, eat from the official sponsors.

There was very little trickle flow to other areas of the city. If you needed to travel somewhere by foot to even get to an Olympic venue, the moment you ducked off of one of the five main streets the action was on, it was no more crowded than a Sunday afternoon.

I’m all for the sport of the Olympic games – in fact I’ve grown to love two sports as a direct result of them, biathlon and curling – but when it comes at the expense of local business, that’s where issues become raised. (I have the same stance toward the large box stores that choked downtown Vernon almost out of existence. I know I’m beating on a well beaten drum, but I’d like to believe that not only are the corporations to blame for basically propping one another up, but the travellers for allowing themselves to be obviously gouged for some things while choosing to eat cheap shitty food they could get at home other times. I’m just naive for actually believing the whole “business boom for all” snake oil pitch prior to the games and have finally come around.)

On the opening day there were protests in the streets. A riot almost broke out. A few days before the games my station was nearly crippled for five hours by a bomb scare. But to what end? Would throwing that news box through the window of the bank suddenly stop the games or cure poverty in a flash? Did they expect to create awareness for an issue most people already know about? (Fun Fact: homelessness and poverty is a worldwide problem. Letting a bank collect insurance money to replace a window and some tile isn’t solving anything.)

Of all the different causes, want to know who actually pulled it off properly? (properly being: pushing a cause or creating awareness without coming off as bad as the people you’re protesting against.) A group of pirates. Yes, you read that correctly. A group of pirates were the most effective protest group of the 2010 Winter Games. The cause? Third world’esq working conditions on cruise liners.

Want to know why I remembered that? Because a group of about 70 peaceful protesters decked out in pirate garb hooting and hollering “yarr” and other pirate-like lingo paraded themselves down the sidewalk, waving jolly rogers and offered out pamphlets to anyone who would take ’em. They weren’t there to spread a message of “fuck the games” or “Olympics = Vancouver police state”, they accepted that the window to protest the actual Olympics coming to Vancouver passed several years ago and they were now out to create awareness for their cause with a clear message. They cleverly acted within the bounds of the law (unusual for a pirate, yes) and anyone who dared to stop them would attract a lot of negative attention because of it.

To the police and security, they were no different than another group of proud Canadians waving flags and dressed in red.

Every once and a while I ask myself why I bother paying attention to these things. A protest is a protest and very rarely the message isn’t something I wasn’t already knowledgeable about. Truth be told, I’m fascinated by it. No matter the cause. From the peaceful Salt Satyagraha to calculated terrorist attacks and back again.

With my Olympic experience now behind me, I’ve emerged with at least one passionate cause. Travel worldly, Eat locally. If I’m ever involved in another event of this scale, I’m going to do my best to encourage a spreading of the wealth.

~J

(Yeah, that’s a bit of a corny line to go out on, but it’s my blog – so nya nya.)

Advice Content: Fast food burgers and macro beer will taste the same no matter where you are in the world. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars to travel somewhere then you should be doing your best to experience what the locals would experience on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Otherwise you might as well stay home and cover your walls with postcards, it’ll be cheaper.

Additional Advice Content: If you’re the militant type and want to be taken seriously. Infiltrate. Organize and Execute a calculated plan. There are ways to grind an entire city to a halt without hurting anyone. Pick up “Sun Tzu’s The Art of War”, learn a few lessons and be imaginative. Maybe next time with the right head on your shoulders you might accomplish something.

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