British Columbia

Where do the 2010 Olympics rank among important events in Vancouver's history?

With a decade to consider its impact, we wanted to spark a conversation about where the Olympics sit in the pantheon of important Vancouver events. 

According to our expert panel of historians, it's not even close to gold, silver or bronze

The 2010 Olympic Games left a lasting impression on many in Metro Vancouver. But a panel of local historians agree the historical impact of the Olympics was relatively minimal. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

It might have been the biggest celebration Vancouver has ever seen.

But if you ask most historians in town, that's really all the 2010 Winter Olympics were.

"I don't think they left any legacy in Vancouver, any physical legacy," said Michael Kluckner, president of the Vancouver Historical Society.

"You can argue that Canada Line got built earlier than it would have been ... but otherwise it didn't leave anything other than the memory of a party."

With a decade to consider their impact, we wanted to spark a conversation about where the Olympics sit in the pantheon of important Vancouver events. 

A panel was convened, consisting of five longtime local historians — plus former Vancouver mayor and B.C. premier Mike Harcourt — and a short list of 13 events in the city's history was developed. 

Panellists were asked to consider both an event's immediate impact, and how it contributed to the city's collective understanding of its values.

In addition to Harcourt and Kluckner, the panel included John Atkin, Lisa Smith, Daniel Francis and Jean Barman. 

Points were given in reverse order of ranking (13 points for first place, 12 for second, etc.) and panellists were allowed to put events in a tie.

And the results?

  1. Completion of the CP Rail line in Vancouver (1887)

  2. Stopping a freeway through downtown (1969)

  3. The 1986 World Exposition (1986)

  4. Amalgamation of Vancouver with South Vancouver and Point Grey (1929)

  5. De-industrialization of Granville Island/South False Creek (1970s)

  6. Anti-Asian Riots (1907)

  7. Eviction of the Kitsilano Reserve (1913)

  8. Expulsion of Japanese-Canadians (1942)

  9. Rejection of Komagata Maru (1914)

  10. Winter Olympics (2010)

The original 1966 Strata Act — which allowed ownership of individual condo units — tied for 10th place, followed by the 2003 opening of safe injection site Insite and the 1886 Great Fire that destroyed much of Vancouver when it was in its infancy. 

In the early 1980s, the shores of False Creek were transformed from run-down railyards into the bustling epicentre of Expo 86. (Vancouver Public Library)

Expo > Olympics

Why do the Olympics not even get close to the podium in the ranking of Vancouver events?

Harcourt, who has been involved directly or indirectly with most key events in Vancouver's history over the past 50 years, said part of it comes down to the Olympics being a more recent event with less time to assess its long-term impact. 

But he also contrasted the Olympics with Expo: while both were international events where Vancouver got a convention centre and a rapid transit line, Expo was seen as the culmination of a number of decisions around land-use planning — including the stopping of the freeway — that changed how the city was seen.

"You can have a safe enjoyable livable central area, and you can mix the use of offices and hotels and restaurants and retail with people living downtown," said Harcourt. 

"And so it was a whole new way of thinking about a city, and how to make cities great places, and that's where the term Vancouverism got coined."

Waterfront Station was built to be the Pacific terminus of the CPR. This photo was likely taken in 1915. (Major Matthews/Vancouver Archives)

Railway #1 for virtually everyone

But when it came to the most important event in Vancouver's history, nothing matched the arrival of the CP Rail line to Vancouver, with it being the top choice for five of the six people on our panel. 

"There would be no Vancouver in its current form without the railroad. We were, in the very early years especially, a company town, and CPR was the company," said Jesse Donaldson, a local journalist and author who recently wrote Land of Destiny, a book that examines the history of Vancouver real estate.   

Donaldson highlighted the immense amount of land CPR owned in Vancouver, and pointed out that CPR was even responsible for the city's name — CPR president William Van Horne believing the existing Granville town site to be too obscure, while George Vancouver and Vancouver Island were better known to eastern Canadians. 

"That wasn't necessarily popular here at the time," said Donaldson.

"Nobody really understood how the name fit. They found it confusing, but all the same when the CPR says you're called Vancouver, you're called Vancouver."

As for the Olympics? Donaldson takes much the same view as those on the panel. 

"The Olympics I guess was a nice party," he said.

"[But] it really led to very little seismic change the way that some other events in history did." 

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.

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