Mayor Sam basks in some Olympic limelight after all

The Globe and Mail
BEIJING — Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan may have been dumped by his own party back home, but here in Beijing he’s in his element. It’s Mayor Sam at his best.
Sitting in his wheelchair in the midst of the busy main corridor at the Main Press Centre, Sam has a thick English-Mandarin dictionary on his lap. The big red book is open and the mayor is studying it, oblivious to the global hacks streaming past.
The first word he’s written down is dao xing, meaning “back up.” The phrase is important when you’re in a motorized wheelchair and you want the Mandarin-speaking driver to help you back your chair out of the van.
The next word is zhi yuan zhe, the word for volunteers and the unsung key of these ultra-successful Olympics. And on and on, word after word. Maybe even Mandarin for “eco-density” is somewhere on the list.

It’s typical of the Sam Sullivan the public rarely sees, someone with an endless curiosity and desire to learn. Years ago, he taught himself Cantonese by listening to tapes during the long periods he needed to get dressed in the morning. Now, it’s Mandarin, de rigueur here and increasingly spoken on the streets of Vancouver.
As he works away, a surprising number of people come up to say hello.
It’s a reminder that even in faraway China, people haven’t forgotten Mr. Sullivan’s memorable moment in the world spotlight, when he waved the Olympic flag perfectly from a contraption on his wheelchair during the closing ceremonies at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
While not so unusual in Canada, it was a shock for many in the rest of the world to see a quadriplegic mayor, let alone one who presided over an Olympic city.
“It’s a really big deal here, that idea that a disabled person could be mayor,” Mr. Sullivan says. “They ask me if I was appointed.”
Alas, for Sam’s sake, no. We have that messy democracy business Chinese leaders want no part of. But the question is a painful reminder to Mr. Sullivan that he will not be mayor in 2010 when the Winter Olympics hit Vancouver.
Two months ago, delegates in his Non-Partisan Association spurned him as their fall mayoral candidate in favour of Councillor Peter Ladner. The rejection still hurts.
Mr. Sullivan fully expected to be Vancouver’s Olympics mayor, and seeing Olympic trappings everywhere he goes in Beijing only underscores his deep disappointment that someone else will welcome the world in 2010.
“I certainly have those thoughts as I ride around here,” he acknowledges. “The way I structured my term as mayor was to prepare Vancouver for 2010. … Falling 41 votes short out of the 2,505 ballots cast [by NPA delegates] was a big price to pay.”
There is one advantage, however. Freed from the shackles of campaigning, Mr. Sullivan can afford to escape city hall as long as he wants. In this case, his Chinese visit is eating up an astonishing 20 days on the political calendar.
That includes a week off to visit the out-of-this-world terra cotta soldiers in Xian and the birthplace of Confucius. “Two of the real treasures of China,” says the mayor.
And he has another date with Olympic destiny: Mr. Sullivan will be one of 10 Canadians to take part in the torch relay for the Paralympic Games that start next month in Beijing.
He’s already rejigged the flag holder on his wheelchair to accommodate the Paralympic torch. “So it’s good recycling. … I also had to sign some legal waiver forms. …They were worried I might set my hair on fire.”
Although never an athlete himself, unless you count political bobbing and weaving as a sport, Mr. Sullivan has been a long-time supporter of the Paralympic Games.
“Paralympic athletes really represent the best of the Olympic idea,” he says. “They are competing just for the sake of the sport. No one has an agenda. And some of the stories these athletes have are just as remarkable as those of any other athletes who fight their way back from adversity.”
Ta shuo de dui. If you don’t understand my fractured pinyin Mandarin, ask the mayor. I think he’s got that far in his big red book. Zai jian.
An interesting p.s. – like many supporters of the city’s supervised safe injection site, Mr. Sullivan is aghast at the ongoing crusade of federal Health Minister Tony Clement against the clinic. “I know a lot of Conservative cabinet ministers are in favour of it remaining open. … [Foreign Affairs Minister] David Emerson supports it. …” What will Mr. Emerson say about Insite on the hustings, if he does decide to seek re-election? I see a new entry in the aforementioned non-Olympic sport of bobbing and weaving. Perhaps even a gold medal.