Olympic torch a double-edged sword for Gregor Robertson

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

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A few hurdles stand in the way of Gregor Robertson taking political advantage of the Games

The Vancouver 2010 torch relay has begun with the lighting of the Olympic flame in Greece. In a little over three months, the world will descend upon Metro Vancouver and the opening ceremonies will be underway.

For Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, it must have been a proud moment for him to join Premier Gordon Campbell and John Furlong, VANOC CEO in bringing back the Olympic flame to Canada. I vividly recall having the honour of carrying former Mayor Sam Sullivan’s bags back from the Torino Games in 2006. One of those bags contained the historic Oslo Games Olympic flag which is now on public display at City Hall. It was a moment I won’t soon forget and I plan to write more about it as we get closer to the Games.

As for the impact the Games will have on Mayor Robertson, you could say the Olympic torch is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the positive side, Robertson will bask in all the media attention and glory that hosting an Olympic Games can provide. Unlike the Premier or Prime Minister, the Mayor actually has the highest level of authority and credentials among elected officials.

When the flame is about to go out, he will have a formal role in passing the flag over to the Mayor of Sochi, Russia in order that they can begin their journey to 2014. Over one billion people will be watching and it will be one of the highlights of his term in office. He’ll feel like he’s on top of the moon.

Robertson will soon become the face of the Olympics. Everyone is going to want a piece of the action and you can expect he will likely become a media darling with the folks over at NBC and CTV. Who could argue that a tall, good looking, eco-friendly Mayor won’t help with ratings. As a result, the Olympics will most certainly help him with his re-election plans in 2011 – or will they? There are a few stumbling blocks ahead for the Mayor that could result in the Games turning into a negative for him.

Firstly, many of his supporters on the left of the political spectrum cringe every time they see him at another photo-op with Quatchi or Sumi. Only months away from the Games, even traditional supporters such as David Eby, outspoken civil rights activist, are threatening law suits and claiming the Mayor is arbitrarily removing people’s freedom of expression. You can expect the voice of opposition will grow over the coming weeks, regardless of what the City does to re-write the Olympic “gag” by-law.

Back in Victoria, Robertson’s former colleagues in the NDP opposition are also sharpening their attacks regarding Olympic expenditures and how this money could have been used to fund sports programs and daycares instead. Their latest salvo came yesterday when they criticized the BC government for the purchase of almost $1 million dollars worth of Olympic tickets.

Were it not for the fact that COPE has been silenced, and the NPA opposition is supporting the Games, Robertson would also be getting raked over the coals for the Olympic tickets Vancouver purchased. It’s only a matter of time before Olympic expenditures undertaken by his Vision administration also make it under the media microscope.

With Robertson now branded as Mr. Olympics, he also faces the herculean task of trying not to wear any of the negatives. Did the Games result in traffic gridlock? Were businesses negatively impacted in the pocket book? You name it, there are hundreds of things that could go wrong with the Games and regardless of whether he likes it or not, the buck will stop with Robertson. Granted, if things go smoothly, he can also take the credit.

Probably the biggest downside related to hosting the Games is the impact it will have on Robertson’s green agenda. As demonstrated by the accelerated budget process the city is undertaking to accommodate the Games, the whole bureaucracy is basically consumed with preparing to host the Games. Most key public servants (many of whom just started working for the City over the last few months) are downing tools and getting ready for February 2010.

With all the public servants otherwise pre-occupied, you can expect it will take until late spring or early summer 2010 before the whole machine is back up and firing on all cylinders again. Next summer also marks the halfway mark for Robertson's administration. This will leave him with little wriggle room to get things done before he has to go back to the voters for another mandate.

It’s easy for the Mayor and his team to get caught up in Olympic fever. I know, because I once had it. However, the Games have as many risks as they have rewards, and Robertson better hope like all sports, the odds are in his favour.

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