Tuesday, 9 March 2010

More Reflections on the Winter Olympics as Spectacle

It's always an interesting exercise to analyze public spectacles with the advantage of hindsight. The Winter Olympics has proven to be one of the more fascinating to apply such analysis to because it is an example of a public celebration done right.

When one thinks about large mega-events like this, one cannot help but notice that they operate on a number of levels. First, they are a reflection of the culture, society, nation, or civilization that spawns them. They form a statement of the past and define who we are as a nation. That was obvious in these Olympics, especially in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Using the Closing Ceremonies as an example, the over-the-top depiction of trite Canadian symbols was an obvious show of what we do not take seriously. What was not as obvious was what we DO take seriously in our society, and that is celebrity worship. The entire second half of the show was a series of mini-concerts by name performers. In antiquity, those celebrity performers would have been images of gods.

At the same time, and in contradiction, such events also seek to establish a pattern or a hope for the future, for the road to a better, improved society and nation. In a sense, it is ironic - and somewhat daunting - that they set a path to influence history, yet in the end must be judged by history. Absurdly, they are like a mentor whose student eventually has the power to fire or to promote his mentor. These Olympics sought to do this by a policy of inclusion: inclusion of first nations, inclusion of founding races, and especially inclusion of spectators. It is this last aspect that will position them well in history.

Why is this? In my own humble opinion, I believe it is mainly because the organizers recognized from the beginning that there is a dual aspect to public events - or to any successful event for that matter. The dual aspect acknowledges that there must be an organized component but just as importantly an UN-organized, spontaneous component that allows for public participation and celebration. By blocking off streets, constructing "party zones," building free-entry pavilions, and having an entire participatory "experience" unencumbered by excessive policing, they endeared this event to the local inhabitants and visitors as well as to a watching world. In this manner, they established a unique model that we as a nation and culture can seek to emulate for future such events. It is indeed no small surprise that there are already calls for Vancouver and BC to seek out more mega-events like the World Cup and for the city to cast off it's undeserved sobriquet of "No-Fun City" by permanently constructing pedestrian-only thoroughfares. No doubt other cities will look to Vancouver and to the model used by VANOC as a template.

Make no mistake, though. History will continue to watch Vancouver to see if we are capable of fulfilling the lofty promises for future, non-destructive communitas.

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