When the Olympic Games have gone... Richmond's legacy

The 2010 Olympics left a lasting impression on many Richmondites; but as the 2014 Sochi Games get into full swing, what's left behind four years on.

It’s cold today in Richmond and you’ll likely need more than a few layers of clothes to keep warm outside. So dig deep through your closet and you may just find that frayed set of red 2010 Olympic mittens that were all the rage four years ago.

Today marks the opening of the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. As such the XXI Olympic Winter Games hosted, in part, right here in Richmond in 2010 are no longer the most recent Winter Olympics to be held.
And while those mittens may just be some of the last household remnants of the games they certainly aren’t the only thing that remains. Richmond’s Olympic legacy is largely tied to the Richmond Olympic Oval, a project that remains the single largest capital expenditure in the history of the city. And while the Oval and the Canada Line are the bricks and mortar of the city’s Olympic legacy the games also brought many intangibles to the city’s culture. And in many ways the games’ legacy is still in its infancy, awaiting judgement as each year passes.
For Mayor Malcolm Brodie, who politically spearheaded the construction of the oval, the legacy of the 2010 Olympics is decidedly in favour of Richmond, citing the Oval, Canada Line, land development, sports and health awareness and increased volunteerism as some of the notable assets the city has procured since being named a host city.
“I think it was a special time for Richmond and I’m glad we were able to capitalize on it,” summarized Brodie.

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Oval brought sporting excellence to city

An important legacy the $178 million Oval has brought to the city is a more robust sporting culture, according to 2010 Olympic snowboarder and Richmond resident Alexa Loo.
“The Olympics and the Oval put us on the map to the rest of the world. Being able to host the games right here really brought the magic of the Olympics front and centre to the families and kids and people of Richmond,” said Loo.
Since covering the long-track ice with multi-purpose facilities such as basketball, volleyball and badminton courts, a fitness centre, a rock-climbing wall, an athletics track and two Olympic-sized ice rinks, the oval has hosted dozens of provincial, national and international championships and tournaments. All those events are in addition to the numerous community sports associations that use the Oval and help pay to keep it operating.
According to the city, no other facility in Canada offers such a variety of sports and activities in one location.
And while there are no winter Olympians from Richmond heading to Sochi — which is typically the norm — that could change in the future.
Keegan Murphy, director of programs at Connaught Skating Club, says partly as a result of the 2010 Olympics, his program has doubled over the past five years to about 600 figure skaters.
For Murphy, the best example of a games-inspired skater is 12-year-old Martin Yushko who started skating following the Olympics after watching Russian figure skater and Olympic silver-medalist Evgeni Plushenko.
“When I saw the figure skating it felt more like a sport I could fit in with and a sport I could enjoy. I enjoy the jumping, the spinning, the skating. I dream to one day be in the Olympics and win,” said Yushko, who now skates six days a week, is a provincial level athlete and can stick double jumps like nobody’s business.
Murphy notes that most skaters start at a younger age but Yushko’s sheer inspiration is what has made him excel.
“As I think we’ve all seen you can create the perfect equation, and the perfect age and the perfect body type and those kids don’t always make it to the top. It’s the kids who have the biggest passion and most determination that make it,” said Murphy.
While Connaught operates out of Minoru Arenas another Winter Olympics sport — short track speed skating — is taking shape at the Oval.
The Richmond Rockets is a small group of about 40 skaters — most of them young children or teenagers — that was founded in 2006.
One of the Rockets is Michael Shi, 15, who was also inspired by the 2010 Olympics.
“I watched it and saw all the fast skaters and thought it would be pretty cool to go as fast as them,” said Shi, a semi-competitive skater who is coached by Nathalie Stewart, a former national long-track speed skater.
Stewart says the Olympic-sized ice rink gives skaters an edge over other clubs and could be a key to developing future Olympians.
“This is where you learn the basics of speed skating. Most skaters start on the short track before advancing to long track. The advantage of the Oval rinks is the width. It’s a safety issue. Skaters feel they can open up and go faster,” noted Stewart, who also coaches her daughter Heather.

 

Long-track competitions unlikely to return

Oddly enough, the Oval will not be directly responsible for producing any future long-track speed skaters, the very athletes it was built for. That’s because, according to the city, it would cost too much and disrupt too many sports programs to convert the facility back to a skating oval for events. However, as long as ice-making capabilities still exist, seeing long-track back at the oval — however temporary — hasn’t been completely ruled out by Brodie.

“It would have to be on the calibre of the world championships for us to do. The possibility exists but I don’t see it happening,” he said.
It’s something Mathieu Giroux, a 2010 Olympics long-track speed skating gold medalist, would like to see.
The Quebec native and Sochi Olympian understands that keeping the Oval’s long-track ice permanently isn’t feasible, but since Calgary is the only true long-track facility in Canada athletes could have benefited from a low-altitude track.
“It would have been nice to keep the Oval because we can only train at altitude in Calgary. Going into Sochi, which is at sea level, it would have been nice to train at sea level — everything is a bit harder and the speed is slower,” said Giroux.
Calgary’s rink is the likely reason the Oval was able to be built as a permanent facility and still be converted for community amenities. In Turin, Italy, the $100 million Oval Lingotto long-track ice remains in place as does the ice at the $30 million Utah Olympic Oval in Salt Lake City, which is a more “bare bones” facility. In Sochi, Russia, the plan is to convert the $32 million (official report) Adler Arena Skating Center into an exhibition hall.

 

Developers enjoy financial spinoffs, create exclusive community

As to whether or not the Oval, and the Olympics as a whole, was worth it or will be worth it financially for Richmond remains debatable, according to some, but certainly not the city.         

The city touts land development deals as a major windfall.
2010 was a record-setting year for construction ($800 million) and in the three years that has followed about $1.9 billion worth of building permits have been issued, many of them adjacent to Canada Line stations.
The Oval itself cost the city $118 million, of which about $50 million was paid for with casino revenue (which would have otherwise been diverted to other city resources). The rest of the funding came largely from the $141 million sale of land around the Oval, formerly an RV Park and fields. That means the facility is debt free, a rare feat for most Olympic facilities.

According to city spokesperson Ted Townsend, the remaining funds helped purchase the 136-acre Garden City Lands and pay for the Oval’s post-games conversion.

A 28-acre 2,600-unit “master-planned community” marketed as River Green being developed around the Oval is the footprint legacy of that land sale, according to the city. The unit prices start at close to $600,000 for a one bedroom and the first phase of about 500 units is nearly complete. Last year, the city controversially removed at least 100 planned affordable housing units in exchange for $6.7 million cash from the developer for its affordable housing program.

De Whalen, an executive member of the Richmond Poverty Response Committee noted this is problematic on several levels.

“River Green is just going to be an exclusive enclave for those who can afford a piece of glass in the sky. The whole idea was to develop complete neighbourhoods — young and old, long-time citizens and new immigrants, high- and low-income households,” said Whalen, who is also concerned about how the city is concentrating social housing in central Richmond.

 

Oval needs city subsidies like any other community amenity

Brodie says the Oval would never have been built without the $60 million from the federally-funded Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee (VANOC). Nor would it have happened without the assurance of the provincial and federally funded $110 million Games Operating Trust that doles out millions of dollars annually in procured interest to the Oval — which is now a city-run corporation — as well as two other facilities in Whistler.
Last year Oval expenses totalled $11.4 million, half of which was paid for through memberships and hosting events. Trust funds totalling $2.7 million and a city subsidy of $3 million helped balance the budget.
Brodie defends the financial operations of the Oval.
“Every city facility has a subsidy. We spend over $1 million on the Gateway Theatre. All of the facilities have a cost associated with them,” noted Brodie.

In 2014 the Oval is expected to generate $0.5 million more earned revenue but its trust fund allocations (determined by the trust’s board) will be lowered by the same amount.
According to the city, compared to regular community centres the Oval provides good value if one measures the subsidy per square foot. But while the subsidies appear more efficient the Oval is also a relatively expensive place to get exercise with daily rates about triple the amount of a community centre and monthly rates about 75 per cent higher.

Also of note, those living at River Green get free membership to the Oval — a result of a sponsorship deal between the developer and the city.

 

‘Olympic fairy dust’ money built the Oval, helps maintain it

The overarching problem for Olympic critic Chris Shaw, a Vancouver resident and UBC neuroscientist, is that the Oval, with its high initial capital costs, came at the expense of taxpayers, particularly, in part, those outside of Richmond.
Shaw said under normal circumstances Richmond residents would scoff at building an ice rink in Halifax but because of the “Olympic fairy dust” it was somehow acceptable that such pricey projects were funded by those outside a community — in this case Richmond. “Quite frankly, if you really want to build these things these are the kinds of things municipalities can do at vastly less costs to everybody if council just decided to do it on its own,” said Shaw.

“Did the average person in Richmond benefit or was it just the developers because they got to build the stuff? I don’t know the answer on that one. I suspect the latter,” Shaw pondered.
The question of value is also of concern for outspoken Oval critic and communications consultant Bob Ransford who has spoken of another side of the Oval from its construction to present day.

He called the Oval a “white elephant” years ago and is maintaining his stance today.
“Everything I thought would come true has come true. It’s costing taxpayers millions of dollars to keep the doors open there. I don’t believe it’s providing that kind of value,” said Ransford, who continues to question ongoing Oval-related expenditures that aren’t necessarily included in official budgets, such as a $6 million museum.

Ransford believes the initial costs were too much to build and keep the Oval on land he says is more valuable for development. In hindsight, for Ransford, it would have been better to have a tear down facility since “the land under it is worth more.”

 

Long term legacy depends on usage

For University of B.C. professor Rob VanWynsberghe, who studies citizenship and democracy, social justice and sustainability and wrote the 2013 Olympic Games Impact Study for the Canadian Olympic Committee in October, 2013, the question of value for money from the Oval is an important one.
“It’s ability to be converted is going to make or break it. The ability to be able to use that as a facility for all these people probably means it’s going to work out,” said VanWynsberghe, noting the population boom that is expected to happen in downtown Richmond in the decades to come, particularly around the Oval, could make the Oval a useful and cost-efficient facility.
According to the city more than 700,000 people visited the Oval last year, including pass members, drop-ins and event participants. According to Townsend it’s difficult to measure how much use the Oval gets relative to other public spaces.
As noted by Brodie there are also other benefits of the Oval that can’t necessarily be quantified.

“It attracts people to come to the city and sport hosting also brings a lot of indirect benefits” such as tourism dollars, said Brodie.

 

Dangers of bureaucratic ‘post-political’ legacy

Ransford also still questions the decision making-process to build the Oval.
“I think the process of how it was made behind closed doors without any real collaboration with the public about what the future after the Olympics could be for that Oval was wrong,” said Ransford.
Shaw also believed the process was flawed without a referendum in light of such a historically large project using taxpayer’s money and resources.
VanWynsberghe notes that such decisions are now to be expected during the Olympics but how politicians react afterwards to spending and decision making is equally important.

“The literature is consistent. If you get the games, this will go down. It’s almost inevitable that decision-making processes get altered for the worse. The problem is the precedence is set for undemocratic decision making.

“That’s the problem. Down the road, politicians and policy makers may be able to say let’s create a new state of exceptionalism just like we did in the Olympics. So who knows what the next thing they will do without seeking broad-based support because they have a deadline. …The idea that you can do that again is the biggest thing you have to worry about,” said VanWynsberghe.

VanWynsberghe calls the process “post-political.”
“Things become all about administrators and all about bureaucrats and not about democracy because they see this new way of operating — and that’s a huge problem,” he said.

 

Better than the rest?

The civic management of expensive projects during the 2010 Olympics is well documented in Vancouver, namely the botched Olympic Village, which now stands to lose as much as $290 million, according to recent reports.
Brodie said Richmond has fared better than Vancouver or Whistler, the co-hosts of the games.
“I don’t think any other centre — Whistler or Vancouver — profited or benefited as much as us,” he said.
That could very well be true, said Shaw.
“All things considered on a scale from one to 100, Richmond probably did a lot better than Vancouver because we got saddled with the village,” said Shaw, who also noted that Richmond benefited from the federally-funded Canada Line which would likely not have come to Richmond without the Olympics and/or Vancouver International Airport.
VanWynsberghe agreed that Richmond benefited from otherwise non-existent federal money as a result of the Olympics.
“I have better hopes for Richmond than I do for Whistler, I guess that’s one way of putting it,” said VanWynsberghe.
Meanwhile, in Sochi, some reports have the games costing a record $51 billion dollars, more than any Olympics in history — winter or summer. The Adler long-track facility has also been reported by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny  to have cost $226 million, a potential $194 million cost overrun.

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