February 24, 2010

I spent an amazing week in Vancouver at the Olympic Winter Games. Andrea and I rented a studio apartment, the Dohm Home in Kitsilano, and attended six events: three hockey preliminaries, two curling matches, and the ladies' 1000m speed skating final.

I'd planned a trip to the 2010 Olympics ever since I moved to Seattle in 2006. How many times am I going to be a brief train ride away from an international event like this? My train tickets were booked last March, I got in on the first wave of event ticket preorders, and Andrea got her first passport ever — after much red tape and lost sleep.

Much has been said about these Olympics, but I learned a lot about the games by actually going there.

The U.S. is a minority

I thought that the Olympic events would be popular among U.S. residents. It's pretty easy to get to Vancouver from anywhere in North America. Even Seattle expected a flurry of tourists flying in to Sea-Tac Airport and traveling to Vancouver by land.

I saw arenas filled almost entirely with Canadian fans even when Canada wasn't competing. In a men's hockey prelim pitting the U.S. against Switzerland, Canadian jerseys outnumbered American and Swiss supporters combined. The fans sitting to our right in the last row of the upper deck were Vancouverites who cheered for the Swiss and, polite to a fault, apologized to us for doing so.

I wore USA shirts and a USA jacket and I carried a 3-by-5-foot American flag, thinking I'd be surrounded by compatriots. Instead I felt surprisingly outnumbered but still very welcome.

Tourists are sheep

We stayed in Kitsilano at an apartment within walking distance of Granville Island and within quick bus range of downtown. Our first reaction when we went out for dinner Saturday night: "Where is everybody?"

Walking around Kitsilano's commercial strips of Broadway and 4th Avenue, you'd never know that hundreds of thousands of tourists are in town. Most Kitsilano restaurants had no lines at all, and at Trattoria Italian Kitchen, the one packed house, the crowd was entirely local. Vanier Park, just across False Creek from the downtown core, was very sparsely visited on a beautiful Friday afternoon.

On many streets downtown, foot traffic was at or below normal tourist levels. There were crushes of humanity at Robson Square, home of the BC Pavilion; on main tourist drag Robson Street; and around the Olympic cauldron and its infamous chain-link fence. The LiveCity pavilions, home of many free events, had 60-minute wait times to clear security, but we got free cheese and chocolate at the Italian House with virtually no wait at all. It really was feast or famine downtown, and once you got even a block off the beaten path it was shockingly lonely.

Protesters? What protesters?

It's not surprising that with the Olympics in the Pacific Northwest, there are protesters who want their voices heard by a major crowd. Much was reported of an event on Saturday the 13th when a few protesters, including one from the Seattle area, smashed windows at the Hudson Bay Company and at a bank branch nearby. That damage was quickly repaired. Aside from that, social action was much more passive.

We spent a fair amount of time downtown during the day and never saw any masked anarchists waving signs or chanting slogans. We saw a single person handing out flyers near a small display of tents to demonstrate against Canada's public housing policy. We read op-eds in the local paper accusing the indigenous First Nations peoples of selling out their culture for games being played on their land. In true Pacific Northwest style, most protesters were passive-aggressive in their approach.

If you get the opportunity to go to the games in London, Sochi, or Rio, seize it. Going to the Olympics is a once-in-a-lifetime event that you'll remember forever.