Many media commentators and barstool wags have made clever Spinal Tap references to describe the cringe-inducing Winter Olympic torch-lighting ceremony at Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium.
That movie’s hilarious Stonehenge fail certainly resonated during the painful moment of collective embarrassment when one of the four columns failed to rise. Poor Katrina Le May Doan was left standing like a lonely bride at the altar as her three torch-lighting partners did their come-on-baby-light-my-fire routines. You could be forgiven for thinking Rob Reiner had directed this as a gigantic Candid Camera episode.
A different image came to my mind as the fake giant icicles rose from the floor of the 25-year-old football stadium amid the fake snowflakes. I half expected to see a resurrected Christopher Reeves fly in wearing blue tights to take his place in a set that looked a lot like the Fortress of Solitude from the late 1970s-vintage Superman movie that made him a Hollywood star.
As we subsequently learned, the outdoor Olympic flame installation on the Vancouver waterfront really is a fortress of solitude. It is well protected by an ugly chain-link fence and well-armed security from the occasional over-refreshed tourist or, more likely, the small groups of protesters who would ruin the TV shots with placards talking about “stolen land” and other things best kept from view.
In a way, that’s quite appropriate. The fence and the security are symbols of the overwhelming theme that overshadows the modern Olympic Games. They are all about control: control of the image, control over the incredibly lucrative licensing and marketing, control of the message, control over the host city and, ultimately, control of television audiences around the world.
That’s pretty much why, if you recall, the Cirque du Soleil bowed out from the conception of the opening ceremonies several years ago, blaming a heavy-handed bureaucratic interference in their artistic vision. We can now see that this was a tragedy. Despite some truly beautiful moments (k.d. lang’s version of “Hallelujah,” for instance), the opening ceremony amounted to a terribly contrived and timid production that left many of us scratching our heads about what it tried to portray.
Let’s cut to the chase. It was very nice of the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee, or VANOC, to acknowledge the strong aboriginal presence and claim to the West Coast by designating certain local peoples as “Host Nations.” But visually and symbolically, these host nations were relegated to folkloric decorations during the opening ceremonies, giving cultural and political cover to the Games with their colourful costumes, but without a real voice.
This echoes the Native reality in Vancouver, where the worst of the poverty, degradation and repression falls upon people of aboriginal descent. They might be given a token role, but still don’t have access to Vancouver’s fortress of solitude.
Don’t forget that the Pacific province is among the few regions of Canada that has yet to truly deal with land claims by First Nations. Control over the territory of BC is an unfinished issue.
Speaking in BC’s widely read online magazine, The Tyee, one Native leader refused to buy in to the saccharine moment of happy togetherness. Arthur Manuel, who was a central player in the Sun Peaks protest against a ski corporation’s encroachment on his people’s territory in BC’s interior, said the aboriginal participation in the Games largely amounts to a marketing exercise.
“Indigenous peoples have the highest suicide rate, highest unemployment and the most homelessness,” Manuel told The Tyee. “[Organizers] are using the Four Host Nations as an advertisement spin to get around having to address those fundamental issues.”
And he pointedly noted that Canada was one of only four countries to vote against the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. That’s one reason why Manuel encourages protests against the Games: “We want to show we’re not rolling over and playing dead.”
I admit that I hesitated to write this column as a critical look at this hugely important event. I was born in Vancouver, after all, and though I’ve lived in Montreal for 20 years I still look at British Columbia as a homeland of sorts. In my heart of hearts, I really want this event to be a success. Part of me wants to say, “Let’s just concentrate on the athletic performances, and root for the people who should be the focus of the Games.”
But having come from there, it’s also worth observing that there’s something in Vancouver’s social and political culture that tries to paper over conflict and social disruption with the Victorian equivalent of a tablecloth because, well, it’s just not polite. The British heritage of the place is no doubt largely to blame for this, though it has never been able to completely contain the raucous social upheaval that has often rocked the West Coast.
So while we should still root for the athletes who have worked so hard to reach this moment of glory, we should not forget that politics and power still play an ominous role in the whole exercise. The control over BC’s fortress of solitude is a battle that is still playing out, despite the pretty pictures we see on our television screens.