February 21, 2010 / 1:19 AM / 7 years ago

Partying Vancouver really in the Games groove

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - For a city widely described as ambivalent before the Winter Games started, Vancouver was doing a pretty good imitation of a city which had fallen completely and utterly in love with the Olympics in the first week and planned to celebrate the fact in style.

By Saturday night, it resembled nothing more than one, huge -- largely good tempered -- party with everybody welcome as long as they had a smile on their face.

It is fair to say such whole-hearted enthusiasm has taken even the most optimistic of Games organizers by surprise given Canadians' reputation for modest reserve.

Germany's official pavilion has had to fly in extra beer from home because it drastically underestimated how many people would show up for a drink -- not your average problem at a German bier keller.

Police say at least 150,000 people crowded into the downtown area on Friday evening. The last stragglers had just left when the early arrivals for Saturday's day-long celebrations began turning up at dawn.

Sunday's crowd was expected to be even bigger when Canada play arch-rival the United States in men's ice hockey in the afternoon. Police are bringing in extra forces to deal with potential rowdiness.

The unseasonable Spring-like weather -- the sun has shone brightly in crystal clear skies for the past three days -- has not exactly dampened spirits either.

"We're being tourists in our own city for a day," said Vicky Steele, who was soaking up the scene and sun with her husband as the crowd swirled around them.

A river of people -- many carrying small Canadian flags -- flowed past the media center to the Olympic cauldron, where crowd control workers sat on lifeguard chairs giving directions with bullhorns.

By late afternoon, just crossing though that human river required a patient five-minute journey of squeezing though people. Police were needed so Olympic buses could pass through.

"FREE STUFF"

The vast majority of the crowd are Canadians from the Vancouver area with many expressing surprise at how large the celebrations had become given predictions that residents would greet the Olympics with only a cool embrace.

"There was a lot of resentment at the beginning because everyone thought it was only tickets for the well-to-do and their friends," said Shari Herrmann.

"But there is so much free stuff for everybody that it has become a party," said Herrmann, a resident of the Vancouver suburb of Port Moody who was carrying a Swiss flag to honor her family's dual nationality.

Downtown Vancouver can get crowded on a weekend night but it has seen nothing like the size of those jamming Granville St. -- where many bars are located -- and Robson Street -- where free concerts are being held.

Both streets are closed to vehicle traffic, allowing the people to spill out on to the streets. In some blocks, both sidewalks and street get jammed.

"It's absolutely insane on Robson Street and any other street in Vancouver," said Katrina Sheputis, a Vancouver resident, who was walking with guests from out of town. "It's one big happy family at the moment."

The evening crowds began assembling with the February 12 opening ceremony, and have seemed to grow larger with each passing day. Downtown restaurants that would have seats available at the start of the Games now groan with lengthy queues.

"Today is amazing with so many people. We've been downtown like three times (since the Games started) but today is the busiest," said Marco Herrmann.

TRANSIT STRAINED

The crowds have strained but not broken Vancouver's public transit system, which has handled an average of 1.6 million passengers a day during the Games, a record for the system.

The SkyTrain transit line is carrying 54 percent more people than normal, while traffic on the SeaBus ferry that connects Vancouver and North Vancouver was up 200 percent. Bus riders were urged not to wear backpack to allow more people on.

Part of the reasons busses were jammed was that residents seem to have heeded calls to leave their cars at home, so in contrast to the overflowing crowds there has not been the traffic chaos that Games planners had feared.

While the daytime crowds are family-oriented with mothers and baby strollers, they get younger and more intoxicated by night. Vancouver police arrested about 40 people for public drunkenness on Friday, twice what they normally would.

Police late on Saturday ordered liquor stores in the downtown area to shut down early to prevent people from buying booze to drink on the street. Bars were allowed to remain open.

While the long lines continue outside pavilions and free concert sites, not every group is able to draw in visitors. One espousing various conspiracy theories about the September 11 attacks drew mostly confused looks to their impromptu tent.

Editing by Jon Bramley; To query or comment on this story emailsportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com

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