VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Millions watched four years ago as Vancouver’s mayor, Sam Sullivan, rolled onto the Olympic stage in Italy. Spasms shot through his legs. The blinding lights felt warm.
The crowd at the closing ceremony in Turin gasped as Sullivan turned a tradition into an improbable and stirring moment. Sullivan is a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, yet on that stage he waved the Olympic flag.
At City Hall, thousands of letters poured in from all over the world, from Russia and China and Italy, from the disabled and the able-bodied. The Vancouver Olympics, still four years away, had established an enduring image: the mayor and his Turin twirl.
“People tell me all the time, even now, how tears came when he did that,” said Lynn Zanatta, Sullivan’s fiancée.
Sullivan, 50, will not perform an encore when the Winter Games begin here next month. He lost his party’s nomination for re-election in 2008. He lost his place at the Olympic table. He lost his mentor, Abraham Rogatnick, who died last August, and went to seven other funerals.
In a year defined by loss, Sullivan looks around the city he once governed and sees the Olympic-related gains. He remains just as busy, content with his tenure and its criticisms, reborn, he said, for the second time.
“I’m going to be more effective outside City Hall than in it,” Sullivan said at his 16th-floor downtown condominium.
One morning in early January, friends strapped Sullivan into the Trail Rider, a combination wheelbarrow and rickshaw that allows people in wheelchairs to hike with assistance. Sullivan’s napkin sketch provided the basis for the design. The friends pushed Sullivan up a trail at Cypress Mountain, the site of the Olympic snowboarding and freestyle skiing competitions. This, Sullivan said, was the last place he walked.
“It was a day just like this,” he said. “Foggy, with a little bit of rain.”
Sullivan played Beethoven on the piano that morning almost exactly 31 years earlier, then went skiing with friends. At 19, he felt invincible and acted foolishly, breaking his neck while trying to ski between his friend’s legs.
The accident left Sullivan mostly paralyzed from the neck down, and it took him years to regain minimal movement in his shoulders, arms and hands. He moved into low-income housing, watched as nine friends committed suicide and even considered ending his own life.
In a symbolic way, he did. His new outlook and a self-help book prompted his first rebirth. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He studied physics, astronomy, history and quantum theory. He learned Italian, French, Cantonese, Punjabi and Mandarin.
Sullivan became a city councilor. He founded six nonprofit organizations that invented ways for people with disabilities to sail, hike and fly ultralight aircraft. As the mayor, he had an engineer turn his wheelchair into 300 pounds of rolling innovation, designing ways for Sullivan to break ground with a shovel, catapult a baseball, even wave the Olympic flag.
Hundreds of hours of building and testing went into that moment. Sullivan practiced in his chambers, in parking lots, in the yard outside his parents’ home. As he twirled, he felt as if he were in a movie, silent, bright and in slow motion.
This said something about Sullivan, about disabilities, about Vancouver. Although he cherished waving to the world, he refuses to let that moment define his Olympic legacy, the subject of which is complicated.
During his inaugural speech in 2005, Sullivan asked his constituents to consider what kind of city the world would find at the Olympics. He saw the Games as secondary, a tool, complete with a deadline, to remodel Vancouver for an international stage.
While Zanatta drove around the city in their van, Sullivan deflected credit for the projects he pointed out — the work of hundreds, he said. Like the 3,000 units of low-income housing now or soon to be under construction. Or the new roof and renovation of B.C. Place, the stadium that is the site of the opening ceremony.
Sullivan kept motioning, talking about the power of the Olympics: the renovated convention center, the Canada Line transit service linking downtown to the airport, 200 new police officers, the Downtown Streetcar project connecting Chinatown to the athletes’ village, 311 service, free live events for those who cannot afford tickets.
“Everything is for the city,” Sullivan said. “It’s for us. It’s a legacy. The fact that the Olympics happened was the only reason all this happened.”
Where Sullivan sees progress, critics cite controversy, which centered on the athletes’ village. Gregor Robertson, the current mayor, said taxpayers were “on the hook” for the billion-dollar project. Local newspapers have referred to a “debacle” and a “fiasco” and an “Olympic slush fund.”
Sullivan said that about two-thirds of the city’s residents favored the Olympics in a referendum, that money came from the city’s Property Endowment Fund, that the Olympic village would be turned into waterfront condominiums and eventually house 16,000 residents.
“Not one taxpayer has paid one dollar for the Olympic village,” he said. “And they never will.”
But the subject of cost overruns has returned Sullivan, who was criticized for his liberal drug policy and housing density initiatives, to the spotlight. A recent Angus Reid online poll of British Columbia residents found that 50 percent believed the Olympics would have a positive effect on the province, and that 69 percent felt too much money had been spent.
Sullivan said he had no regrets. These Games, he insisted, will present Vancouver as an accessible, environment-friendly, cosmopolitan oasis, on par with Canada’s more renowned cities, Toronto and Montreal. Residents will benefit, even profit, from improved infrastructure, he said.
The central question: will Vancouver’s Olympic legacy resemble Calgary’s, whose 1988 Winter Games were criticized initially but regarded as successful? Or Montreal’s 1976 Summer Games, which incurred a $1.6 billion debt?
Clearly, Sullivan does not miss politics. The thought of another chicken dinner makes him cringe, and public hearings induce cold sweats.
“Even just thinking about it is a profoundly unpleasant experience,” he said. “I miss the people, but my joy comes in creating new things. That’s not what you do when you’re mayor. You shake hands and kiss babies. Not anymore.”
Sullivan never found much use for hindsight. His guiding principle: move forward. After leaving office, he founded an organization, Global Civic Policy Society, its mission made clear with this slogan: Policy without the politics.
During a three-day stretch, Sullivan had a dinner meeting with advocates for those with disabilities. He spoke to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users about improving the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver’s worst neighborhood. He planned research with thedesign center for sustainability at the University of British Columbia. Sullivan also serves on the board of the Rick Hansen Foundation, an organization dedicated to spinal cord injuries and quality of life.
At each meeting, Sullivan wrote notes on scraps of paper, his BlackBerry buzzing continually while he examined the same passions he held in office. He has retained his political connections, but not the corresponding obligations. “I’m not in politics anymore,” he said. “I don’t have to care what people think.”
Sometimes, Sullivan finds himself calling Rogatnick, a professor and civic leader, a historian and intellectual and friend. His death hurt Sullivan the most.
Despite everything he lost in the past year, Sullivan regained his sense of purpose. His legacy remains intertwined with Vancouver’s Olympics legacy, even if his role is that of spectator. (Sullivan will participate in the torch relay.)
At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Sullivan’s friend Brad McCannell was swarmed by the Chinese, who thought that any man in a wheelchair must be the one who waved the Olympic flag in 2006.
“It was like the whole world shouted
, ‘Why not?’ ” McCannell said. “It was astounding. Sam’s become the face of all of this.”
People still ask about that moment, still write letters describing how Sullivan inspired them. He hopes the image relays the appropriate message, that Vancouver once had a disabled mayor because of its accessibility and inclusiveness, not the other way around.
On his final day in office, at a parade, Sullivan took one last twirl, not so much to wave goodbye, but to signal his latest new beginning.