Two minutes. That's all it took for an intoxicated Canadian to start badgering me. On Friday evening, I was on my way to Vancouver's Waterfront Station to catch a train to Robson Square, the downtown area filled with bars, restaurants and nightclubs that was sure to get a little wild if Canada beat Slovakia in the men's hockey semifinals. A young man wearing a red hockey jersey and red paint on both cheeks staggered over to me as I walked toward the station. "Hey, how do you f______ get downtown?" he asked slowly, putting his hand on my shoulder.
I wriggled free and pointed toward the proper train. "F___ yeah, I'm coming with you," he said. Terrific. As I walked, and he stumbled, into the station, he yelled "Woooooo!" at disturbed passersby. We got on the train, and he turned his glazed eyes toward me and said he was meeting friends. "Want to come with me?" he asked. Um, no thanks.
The city of Vancouver and the ski village of Whistler are terrific hosts for these Olympic Games. The air is clean, the public transit is scarily efficient, and the harbors, with snowcapped mountains for a backdrop, are picturesque. Whistler, two hours to the north and home to the skiing, sliding and Nordic events, is a winter wonderland. But let's face it: if public intoxication were an Olympic sport, Vancouver and Whistler would own the podium.
I'm not saying this because of the photographs of a few Canadian female hockey players sipping champagne (and chugging Molson) on the ice after winning the gold medal. Those images, however, seem to encapsulate the spirit of the host country. Throughout the Olympics, drunken revelers have overrun the streets of Vancouver. Local hospitals are reporting spikes in emergency-room visits for alcohol-related sicknesses and injuries; most of the intoxicated patients are males between the ages of 15 and 24. In Whistler, the partyers have turned what should be a cozy village into rows of frat houses in need of soundproofing.
Yes, the mood is festive. And for the most part, law and order is being maintained. In Whistler, police have said arrests are lower than what they would typically be during New Year's Eve or, for that matter, your average rambunctious summer weekend. Still, while walking through downtown Vancouver after a long day's work, you can't help but think, These must be the drunkest Olympics ever.
Believe me, I'm no prude. But all the yelling and screaming and woo-wooing becomes grating. These are the fourth Olympics I've covered, and Vancouver drinks Athens, Torino and Beijing under the table. I asked a few journalists who have covered more Games than I have to rate Vancouver on the intoxication scale. Vahe Gregorian of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who has covered eight Olympics, dating back to Atlanta in 1996, agreed with my chart-topping assessment. In reference to downtown Vancouver's main strip of nightclubs, he said, "Granville Street itself is unlike anything I've seen at an Olympics." And he noted that all the drinking has led to a lot of public urinating. "I've personally witnessed about 8 to 10 guys whizzing at once along a fence half a block off the main street," he said. "It's like the infield at the Kentucky Derby."
Bonnie D. Ford, who is covering the Games for ESPN.com, has been to every Winter Olympics since 1998 in Nagano, Japan. "There's no second place," she said when asked where Vancouver ranks on the booze barometer. (In fairness, you can pretty much strike from the debate Salt Lake City, the abstemious host of the 2002 Olympics.) Ford's hotel is near Granville Street, close enough for her to hear the "Can-a-da, Can-a-da" shouts at 3 a.m. "It's been a two-week tailgate," she said. "I've covered a lot of college football, and this is like the Dante's Inferno version of tailgating."
The ultimate confirmation of my suspicions came from John Powers, the Boston Globe's esteemed Olympics writer who has covered 17 Games, starting with Montreal in 1976. Since then, he has missed only one Olympics, Moscow in 1980, which the U.S. boycotted. I asked him if Vancouver is setting Olympic records for revelry. "It is, by far," he said. "There's just a couple of thousand people every night with nothing to do, no tickets, concentrated downtown. It's their chance to live the dream."
Vancouver is lucky it hasn't turned into a nightmare. After Canada beat Slovakia on Friday, thousands of people spilled out of the bars and onto Granville to celebrate. "F___ the U.S.A.," a Canadian fan yelled, anticipating Sunday's gold-medal game against the Americans. As I dodged one oblivious celebrant who almost poked my eye out with a Canadian flag, I bumped into another who was stumbling down the street. I asked a police officer, who was carrying a flask he had just confiscated, if his fellow officers were finding a lot of booze in the streets. "One [officer] just told me he took two beer cans," he said.
When I asked a reveler if there was too much public intoxication in Vancouver, he responded, "There should be more." A roofer by day, he told me he had just consumed 8 to 10 beers and he looked like it. "The police are too strict," he said. "One of them poured out my beer and I wasn't even drunk yet." At 2 a.m., Granville Street was still packed, and there were plenty of drunks wandering about. Vancouver appeared to have more morons per square foot than the Jersey Shore house.
The city has taken smart precautions. For example, liquor stores, which normally stay open until 11 p.m., are required to close at 7 p.m. on the nights the Canadian hockey team plays. Still, if the fans were so boozed for a semifinals win over Slovakia, imagine how they'll behave if Canada clinches a gold medal against the U.S. on Sunday night. Or even worse, imagine if Canada loses. Things could easily get out of hand. Canadian fans in Vancouver need to root hard for their hockey team. Their sanity, and safety, may depend it.