Vancouver Winter Olympics bring on the party

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      A pile of hockey sticks was thrown on the ground and the massive sea of people began to part. Nets were moved into the middle of the street, and two men in goalie equipment took their places. This game was not about to break for any car.

      A crowd stretching half a block in either direction formed a circular barrier as people began to play. Several nearby patios blasted music over one another. Chants of “Go, Canada, go” roared when a group of American fans subbed in for one of the teams. Drunks losing themselves in all the excitement ran across the playing area with their arms waving wildly. Young girls decked out in Canada gear clambered onto benches and mailboxes, using cellphone cameras to capture as much of the madness as they could.

      Over at LiveCity Yaletown, 8,000 kids had just charged the stage at a show by Canadian hardcore band Alexisonfire. They destroyed a barrier meant to hold back the masses, the concert was cancelled almost before it had started, and 19 people ended up in hospital. Following the incident, the thousands of fans in attendance briefly threatened to riot. But a few people’s anger was quickly overwhelmed by a spontaneous singing of the national anthem. The mob left the waterfront venue and took over the surrounding streets, moving en masse to join the thousands of others already at ground zero of Olympics mania.

      A block away from the street-hockey game, a group of men in red spandex put wooden sleds down on the asphalt in a clearing made by two parked police cars. With Vancouver Police Department officers looking on in amusement, the riders prepared themselves for a race. An air horn was held high, and with a deafening blast the sledders were off, pulled by ropes tied around alcohol-fuelled mates.

      Jubilant spectators leaped out of the aspiring athletes’ paths as they careened down the block and over an imaginary finish line. To the victor went the spoils, with a young woman running over for a kiss.

      At the other end of the strip, turntables set up on a sidewalk spun out jungle beats for dozens of partiers to dance to. Nearby, in friendly competition, three men in bright ski suits carrying a boom box performed to the music of Run-DMC.

      That was Granville Street just after midnight on Tuesday, February 16. Hours earlier, the Canadian men’s hockey team had decimated Norway with an 8-0 victory. Vancouver was partying like nobody had ever seen before.

      The police estimate that 150,000 people filled the downtown core that night, with as many as half of them packing Granville Street alone.

      It was a risky brush with chaos, a brand of celebration rarely permitted by the authorities. The whole house of cards might have fallen if it hadn’t been for the fact that people were simply having too much fun to screw it up.

      Why was it all happening? With the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in town, Vancouver has definitely had an excuse to let loose. But this isn’t the first time the city has hosted a party. The consensus seems to be that this time, there’s something different going on.

      There have been moments when crowds have pushed the limits of acceptable behaviour. But the police and those in the hospitality industry seem to agree that, overall, those partying during the Olympics have been behaving themselves.

      In a back room at Tonic Nightclub, Ben Gregory, a bar manager, told the Straight that the Olympics have brought all the benefits of a mega event with very few of the potential troubles.

      “We did record numbers last week, and I’m sure we’ll break them this week,” Gregory said. “And I think that everybody has been really friendly and respectful during the Olympics.”¦Everybody is in great spirits, and there is so much pride in the city.”

      He reported encountering relatively few problems with Tonic’s Olympic crowds, and he reasoned that this is because the people coming downtown are feeling like they actually have something to do. Whereas an average Friday would see the Granville strip filled with people drinking solely for the purpose of getting drunk, the bars are now filled with fans celebrating Canada and other nations and revelling in the global spirit of the Olympics.

      “There are street-hockey games going on, people with bongos singing ”˜O Canada’, and, at midnight, you still see little kids walking around with their parents,” Gregory explained. “It’s how the entertainment district should be.”

      To a point, the police seem to agree.

      “I think festive would be an understatement,” said Const. Lindsey Houghton, a VPD spokesperson, by phone. “While our athletes may not have owned the podium, they certainly have inspired all of us to come together as a nation.”

      Perhaps a little too much so. On Saturday, February 20, the police instructed every liquor store and cold beer and wine shop in the downtown peninsula to shut its doors at 7 p.m.

      But Houghton emphasized that even though the police had to ask for a little help from B.C.’s liquor control and licensing branch, overall even Granville Street has been manageable.

      In trying to nail down exactly what’s different about this party, Houghton may have been onto something when he noted the element of nationalism that has characterized the Olympic celebration.

      Michael Schmitt, a professor of social psychology at SFU, said that with the Olympics come powerful group identities. The most obvious is nationalism, but there is also an international identity associated with the Olympic Games.

      “We all feel needs to connect with others, and one of the ways that we do that is feeling part of a larger group,” Schmitt told the Straight by phone. “Think about a lot of the identities involved around the Olympics. There is certainly lots of indoctrination and socialization that begins when we’re very young, encouraging us to feel a sense of national pride.”

      What the city is seeing are situation-specific factors playing into national identities that have often been fostered since childhood, Schmitt said.

      One result for Vancouver seems to be a 17-day-long party draped in red and white. But also, a celebration that is mostly keeping itself in check.

      Schmitt explained that the characterization of a mob as irresponsible is outdated. “Most group contexts include a fairly strong sense of norms that people feel an obligation to uphold,” he explained. The LiveCity crowd’s restrained response to the cancellation of the Alexisonfire concert could be interpreted as an example of that phenomenon.

      When this article hits the streets, the city will have just four more days to keep it together.

      To many in the nightlife industry, that’s both good news and bad. Andrea Bagnas told the Straight that for the opening ceremonies, she worked a 15-hour shift at Soho Billiards. Since then, the workload hasn’t let up.

      Located on Hamilton Street, a stone’s throw from LiveCity Yaletown, Soho has seen its traffic explode over the past two weeks. That has, of course, meant a lot of money, Bagnas explained. But she’s ready for the marathon to end.

      “It is just chaos,” she said at a table at Soho. “I couldn’t even tell you. We are constantly busy.”

      With the relentless spillover from LiveCity—which, on many nights, has filled to capacity and been forced to turn thousands away—Bagnas reported that crowds have been a little more unruly than usual. But just like up on Granville, she said that for the most part the Olympics’ mix of local and foreign partiers has kept its cool.

      Back at Tonic, Gregory also said that extended hours are spreading his staff thin.

      But when asked what problems he’s had to deal with, Gregory joked that with kids behaving themselves, he’s more worried about whether or not the Canada gear he’s bought will still be cool after the circus leaves town.

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