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After travelling for one month to communities across British Columbia, the ten foot Poverty Olympics Torch reached its final destination in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) on Sunday February 7. This one-day event was organized by the DTES community to bring awareness to the devastating situation in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood. Their Olympic message was concise: increase social housing, welfare and minimum wage, and their motto clear: End Poverty, it’s not a Game.
The arrival of the torch was greeted by a large media presence both local and international – including big shots like the CBC and BBC. These reporters spoke briefly with community members and organizers who were part of the torch relay and learned some facts about Canada's poorest postal code: the HIV rate is 30%, the same as Botswana and there are more homeless people here than Olympic athletes. Unfortunately, many of the media outlets left before the Poverty Games started, and missed the opportunity to meet the people behind the statistics.
Not to mention they missed out on an afternoon filled with laughter and hysterical satirical skits that so eloquently and poignantly portrayed the issues behind poverty on the DTES.
The jocular tone of the afternoon was clearly established during the opening Ceremonies. The games were co-hosted by Poverty Olympics mascots: Chewy the Rat, Itchy the Bedbug and Creepy the Cockroach: pets which many DTES residents have an intimate relationship with and daily interaction.
There were four events: The Housing Hurdles, the Miracle on Ice, The Broken Promise Slalom and Wrestling for The Community.
The first event consisted of four hurdles (condo development, policing, access to welfare and discriminating landlords) that each athlete had to overcome in order to reach safe and affordable housing. Despite earnest effort by all competitors and cheers of support from a full-house, all participants failed to complete the course because the hurdles were impassable.
The Miracle on Ice was the gold medal hockey game between the VANOC Predators and the Pigeon Park Eagles. Despite having to play short of their goalie after Gordie Homeless was ejected from the game by a biased referee, the Pigeon Park Eagles played with spirit and triumphed over the bully tactics of the Vanoc Predators – much to the delight of the crowd.
“I'm really excited. It feels like I’m at the Olympics,” said an animated spectator to my right.
The Broken Promise Slalom had just two competitors - Premier Gordon Campbell and Prime Minister Steven Harper - which brought a lot of reaction from the exuberant crowd. The crowd didn't know who to boo louder. Both competitors managed to miss all four commitment gates: Build 3200 Housing Units, Raise Welfare by 50%, 220 Low Income Units at Athlete's Village, and End Barriers to Welfare, and B-lined it straight for the finish line instead.
The final event was a gold medal-wrestling match between The Community and Mr. Condo Developer.
The Community was represented by four small children and Mr. Condo was a man with black horns and a matching black suit. In the initial rounds of the match Mr. Condo ruthlessly pinned each community member one-by-one. But just when all hope appeared to be lost, The Community changed their strategy, unified and worked together to tag-team Mr. Condo to defeat.
The masterpiece of the closing ceremony was the cockroach cake – an incredible 2 foot lemon pound cake replica. The sweet delight took a month of planning, had a special marshmallow fondant shell, and included eleven pounds of butter.
Poverty Olympics organizer Wendy Pederson was happy with this year's turnout. While she said that the concrete changes she's seen since their first Poverty Olympics in 2008 has been just crumbs, she's optimistic about the future. “They [the government] are taking us seriously now,” she said. “Before they would just mock us or laugh at us.”
Pederson was also proud of ongoing community involvement in putting on the event. She was approached earlier this year by a company who offered to produce the event on behalf of the community, but she turned them down. “It wouldn't be the same. This is our event; the community needs to put it on,” she said.
The community spirit was palpable to anyone in attendance. The organization and participation in the event came solely from the community. It was moving to see how clearly the issues behind poverty in this neighbourhood could be presented in short satirical theatrical pieces created and enacted by DTES residents.