Olympics Leave Town; Vancouver Finds “New Normal”

Even as 150,000 revellers jammed downtown Vancouver streets celebrating Canada’s overtime hockey victory over the U.S.A. to clinch the Olympic gold medal – Canada Hockey Place was being transformed back into GM Place, or as locally know, “The Garage”. Walls were being stripped of Olympic signage and Vancouver 2010 themes, and equipment being provided by Olympic sponsor Coke was being removed.

“The Canucks return on March 13”, one venue volunteer told me of the Vancouver NHL team that currently leads its division.

Celebrations on Robson and Granville streets lasted to the early morning hours Monday but by daybreak, downtown had regained its composure and throngs of up to 40,000 people were headed to the Vancouver airport for their departure home – setting an all-time airport record.

An eerie sense of calm descended upon the city by late morning. It wasn’t an Olympic day and it didn’t seem that business and normal local activity had fully resumed.

Glaringly absent Monday were the team colors and uniforms. A day earlier I was heckled by passersby’s for not wearing red, in fact one person jokingly shouted “get him!” in response to my plain black jacket. Local news reported that police threatened to arrest some people carrying an American flag if they didn’t put it away because they feared for the fans’ personal safety.

Volunteers wearing blue jackets and accredited people wearing “neck plastic” had all but disappeared after three weeks of them being everywhere. It could easily be a plot of a Twilight Zone episode.

By Monday afternoon taxis were as plentiful as Canadian gold medals were in the previous 17 days. But on Sunday wait times were one hour for a cab – and forget about hailing one – I took the bus instead.

If you tried to get into a restaurant in the past few days, especially one with televisions during competitions – you had a very long wait. I tried to get into a pub just prior to the Women’s gold medal curling match and was told the wait would be 2-3 hours.

But Monday morning, the popular Davie Street café “The Elbow Room” had, well, lots of extra elbow room, and it had been quite busy during the Games.  The famous Japadog specialty hot dog carts on Burrard Street had no line-ups following days of block-long queues.  These street vendors offer hot dogs topped with seaweed, kimchi and other interesting delicacies but by Monday their renowned $9.75 kobe beef hot dogs were marked “sold out”.

Robson Square was barely recognizable.  The ice rink was empty; there was no typical 8-hour line-up for the popular zip line attraction that is now closed – and it looked like a ghost town.

Some pin collectors were refusing to give in to the doused Olympic flame and continued to show their wares on benches along Robson, but the crowds around them were significantly diminished.  I managed to make a trade though – I exchanged my PyeongChang 2010 Olympic bid pin (they lost to Vancouver, of course) and upgraded it to a new PyeongChang 2018 Olympic bid pin.  And the cycle continues.

But consumerism can withstand almost any force and the long line-up for the Olympic Superstore at the Hudson’s Bay Company was still there Monday afternoon.  When shoppers managed to get in they were scurrying about to quickly pick up last minute gifts that they were too busy to buy during the competitions (um, guilty).   But don’t expect slashed clear-out prices – a salesperson told me that they expected to stay open at least two more weeks.

But most noticeable was the mood change; people seemed much more relaxed.  While previously giving into their stress and sometimes forcing a smile, now Vancouverites can step back and reflect on what they’ve done.

One taxi driver spoke to me about his memories of the Games during our short drive and it didn’t seem to me that these were images that would soon fade.  Vancouver is left with a legacy of new venues and transit upgrades – and with bills to pay.  But the city’s reputation throughout the world and the country’s sense of accomplishment is a legacy that doesn’t have a price.  And these are legacies that leave Vancouver with a “new normal”.