Airspace restrictions are in effect, naval frigates are patrolling the coast, and the surveillance cameras have been switched on. An omniscient eye-in-the-sky blimp is now circling above the athlete’s village. With a phalanx of a more than 15,000 security personnel, including police, soldiers and private guards, famously laid-back Vancouver is preparing for Friday’s opening of the Winter Olympics with the city’s largest show of force since the Second World War.
The host government and games organisers, however, are drawing as much attention for how zealously they’ve sought to protect Vancouver’s image, and stifle demonstrations, as they are for ensuring the security of athletes, spectators and dignitaries against a possible terrorist action.
David Eby, a civil liberties activist, says “Protesters and activists have been identified as the number one security threat to the Olympic Games.”
A sizeable number of Vancouverites are nonplussed with the notion of hosting the Olympics. There are, for example, the social activists of the “Bread not Circuses” sort. They’re concerned with how the security provisions will exacerbate the city’s homelessness crisis, and question the extraordinary expense of hosting the Olympics with monies that could have been spent addressing chronic social problems. Security alone is costing $900m (€657m) – five times what was originally budgeted.
And although the First Nations bands on whose ancestral lands the venues have been built officially support the games, many other aboriginal groups from across the country are expected to be out protesting under the now ubiquitously Canadian banner “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”. Most of the 13 people arrested for disruptions along the torch relay route were part of aboriginal rights protests.
“When the opening ceremonies happen they’re going to have indigenous people there and we’re going to look like we’re all smiling and happy,” said Arthur Manuel, a former Neskonlith chief. “But I’m not.”
Despite legitimate concerns over terrorism, especially in the wake of the failed “underwear bomber” on Christmas Day, attempts to curtail anti-Olympic protests or criticism have been marked by a dubiously Keystone Cops-meets-Kafkaesque flair.
The highest-profile episode came in November, when the US journalist Amy Goodman was detained by border security while on her way to an event in Vancouver. Host of the left-wing radio and television programme Democracy Now!, Goodman was planning to speak about US health care reform, climate change and the war in Afghanistan. During questioning, however, the agents repeatedly demanded to know what she planned to say about the Olympics.
Goodman was confused. She thought they were talking about Chicago’s failed bid for 2016. The 2010 winter games in Vancouver weren’t even on her radar.
“He was incredulous I wasn’t going to be talking about the [Vancouver] Olympics,” Goodman said. “He didn’t believe me.”
After searching her car, laptop and notes, Goodman was eventually allowed into Canada under the proviso that she left within 48 hours. Her experience quickly made headlines across the country and, not surprisingly, gave Goodman the idea to start airing anti-Olympic commentaries on her popular programme.
Locally, anti-poverty activists have accused games organisers of fostering a climate of harassment and intimidation. Security agents are showing up at the homes and workplaces of prominent Olympic critics, asking questions about what sort of protests or disruptions might be planned.
Even transit police on the local SkyTrain joined the crusade, handing out a grammatically inept flyer to local business owners asking them to report such conspicuously activist behaviour as the wearing of bandanas, sloganeering and the distributing of printed materials. All of which are still perfectly legal, of course, thus prompting the transit police to issue a subsequent clarification that it was not actually targeting protestors.
Robert Holmes, the president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, recently assailed organisers in a speech for “Beijing 2.0-style censorship, stunning failures of transparency and accountability, and a billion-dollar security budget that will leave us with a ‘legacy’ of militarised public space and surveillance infrastructure.”
Vancouver, which likes to bill itself as North America’s gateway to Asia, and is incidentally home to Canada’s largest population of ethnic Chinese, can fairly claim the Beijing comparison is a bit of a stretch. If anything, the mounting media coverage of how security is contending with the prospect of dissent has put only more attention on the protestors.
For their part, the most visible protest groups are promising they will be peaceable and cooperate with police. They now realise that the event they once sought to boycott offers them an unprecedented opportunity to air their grievances. The Olympics are routinely described as the world’s greatest stage for athletes but with an expected global audience of almost three billion, Vancouver’s activists will be competing for their share of the media spotlight, too.