As an overflowing crowd cheered loudly, Itchy the Bedbug, Chewy the Rat, and Creepy the Cockroach were unveiled as the official mascots of the 2008 First Annual Poverty Olympics. The event took place in Vancouver's Carnegie Community Centre, only blocks away from the media centre for the 2010 Winter Olympics.
"People think of Canada as a rich and beautiful country," said Jean Swanson, one of the events' organizers. "But we want the world to know that our neighborhood has the same HIV rate as Botswana. Our province has the highest child poverty rate in Canada (21%), and thousands of homeless people have to search through garbage for food and things to sell."
"We also want them to know," said Alan James, another organizer, "that all of this poverty and homelessness is completely unnecessary. Our province had a surplus of $4 billion last year, and the federal government had a surplus of $14 billion."
The event began with a torch parade from the office of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Inside the community centre, a giant End Poverty Torch made by Downtown Eastside artists was unveiled. A banner with the five Olympic rings portrayed as handcuffs, read, "End poverty. It's not a game." Volunteers from the Carnegie Action Project sang an end poverty anthem to the tune of "Oh Canada," the official national anthem.
Events included the long jump over a bed-bug-infested mattress, the welfare (social assistance) hurdles, the poverty line high jump, and curling for housing rights (with jello).
To meet commitments made before winning the Olympic bid, Swanson said the government should build 3200 units of new affordable housing, increase social assistance rates by 50 per cent, and end arbitrary barriers that are keeping people in dire need from accessing assistance.
Groups sponsoring the event include Raise the Rates, the Carnegie Community Action Project, British Columbia Persons with AIDs Society,and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
Organizers vowed to hold a second and third Poverty Olympics unless governments act to end homelessness and reduce poverty before the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.