Were the Olympics worth it for Vancouver?

VANCOUVER, Canada — Despite the golden glow of the hockey finale, despite the rousing closing ceremonies farewell, there is an ineffable sadness in the streets of Vancouver. And the airport is jammed with tens of thousands of weary people, seemingly desperate to get out of town.

It is undeniably the morning after. And unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Rio, a summer solstice music festival in Paris or even the Super Bowl festivities, where regret co-mingles with wait-’til-next-year anticipation, the Olympics are gone — and gone from Vancouver forever. This party will never be repeated here.

The fear and, in some quarters, loathing that marked the long run-up to the Olympics will not return either. Whatever the costs of this spectacle — and the security tab, for example approached $1 billion, about six times the preliminary estimates — it is unlikely to prove a repeat of Montreal 1976 debacle, with the city saddled with debt for decades to come.

Moreover, the imagined worst-case scenarios were not realized. True, an athlete died. However, it was early and but one tragic death in a big city and vast Olympic empire. The games have played on under more dire circumstances.

Moreover, in a giddy, Sally Field way, Vancouver rejoiced in the discovery that the world liked it. (The notable exception was the British press, which was relentlessly critical, presumably a reflection of its own anxieties about London 2012.)

Tourism will certainly get a boost. Those who were enchanted on TV don’t really care that the torch was obscured by a chain-link fence, that snow had to be choppered in, or that the transportation system for media occasionally got bogged down in traffic. And most visitors who were inconvenienced or disappointed by such matters were won over anyway — by the compelling competitions, the beauty of the region and cordiality of the natives (in all matters other than hockey).

Still, worries will now spring up about the legacy of Vancouver 2010. Everyone here believes this has to amount to more than a 17-day sports festival. More even than a hockey gold medal. And while the new transportation infrastructure and improvements were needed, that’s hardly enough to justify the decade in the making of this vast endeavor.

Vancouver’s first-term mayor, Gregor Robertson, counsels patience until a final judgment can be rendered — and since we’re talking Canada here, not the United States, that’s not an absurd notion.

“Ultimately it will be years before you get a full sense of the balance sheet,” says Robertson, which means it’s unlikely to come before the next mayoral election in November 2011. Robertson, who wasn’t yet a glimmer in the political spectrum when the city won these games back in 2003, believes that the legacy could turn out to be both huge and positive. And that if things work out as he and others civic leaders have envisioned, this gem of a Canadian city might be transformed from a provincial capital into an international one.

Vancouver embraced the model used by Sydney for its 2000 Games. Like Vancouver, Sydney was a beautiful, pristine, exotically multi-cultural city, a provincial capital that aspired to step up. What it aspired to be specifically was a Pacific Rim financial capital. The Olympics provided the perfect entertainment vehicle for the city to woo business leaders and prospective investors. According to Robertson, an independent analysis of the $100 million hospitality program concluded that it yielded $3 billion of investment or about $30 times what the city anteed up.

In Vancouver, some 100 local businesses have been hosting executives from 70 non-Vancouver companies with the hope that they might replicate Sydney’s success. Beyond some thrilling sports events and lavish parties, the mayor hopes these special guests recognized a city where a diverse population works toward common cause.

“This was an opportunity to showcase our talent and the multi-cultural harmony,” he said. “Vancouver is a 21st-century city that works.” (OK, it also rains a lot too, but that’s as it should be. It’s in a rainforest that’s at the very root — and heart — of “green” here.)

Vancouver aspires to become the world leader in green, which except for these past few weeks when gold, silver and bronze trumped all, is the city’s favorite color. Vancouver already trumpets itself as the greenest city in North America. It put on by far the greenest Olympics in history with obsessive monitoring of carbon emissions, heavy reliance on existing facilities, major promotion of mass transit and a state-of-the-green-art Olympic village that has earned praise from environmentalists.

Now civic leaders envision Vancouver taking the next step: emerging as the global center of the burgeoning green economy.

“Given that green globally represents hundreds of billions in emerging investment, this couldn’t come at a more opportune time,” said the mayor. “We want to become the green capital and take leadership in the future of the planet.”

Some people look at an Olympics and see thrilling hockey games, dazzling figure skaters, soaring half-pipers and daring downhillers. Others see a little acorn.