By Mary Milliken
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Cities that take on the gargantuan task of hosting Olympic Games contend that the costly investment leads to a better quality of life for its denizens for years to come.
But the 2010 Winter Games host Vancouver is already ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world, leading some to wonder if the Olympics can add anything to this Canadian city on the so-called 'Left Coast'.
"The bar is set so high now that it will be interesting to see if they do," said Randy Albertson, 55, as he gathered with friends in downtown Vancouver at the countdown board for the Games that open on Friday.
'Vangroovy' or 'Lotusland' -- as the city of 2.1 million is known in Canada -- is by most accounts clean, friendly, safe, multicultural and a gastronomic paradise.
Surrounded by water and snowy mountains, it is the epitome of the healthy outdoors, allowing for golf in the morning and skiing in the afternoon.
With just one highway that skirts downtown, the city also boasts public transport that allows many Vancouverites to go car-free. Even Mayor Gregor Robertson travels by bike, despite one of the city's downsides -- frequent rain.
Vancouver was ranked as the world's most livable city in 2009 by The Economist and was fourth in Mercer's "Quality of Living" survey of 215 cities for the same year.
The mayor said Vancouver is so advanced on issues like anti-smoking laws that it willingly compromised on those issues to accommodate the Olympics.
"We don't need to pontificate on how far down the path we are," Robertson said. "I think it is important we show how we are behaving as a city, and model that, but not be heavy-handed about it."
LITTLE BOOST FOR POOR
The Games have a mostly privately funded budget of C$1.7 billion (1 billion pounds), although a provincial auditor's report from 2006 put the Games' cost to taxpayers at C$2.5 billion.
Even if they support the Olympic spirit, some Vancouverites have mixed feelings about how the money is spent and whether it will improve life for the disadvantaged, like the thousands of homeless just a stone's throw from Olympic venues.
"It was a fantastic opportunity to create low-cost housing here and we blew it entirely and that's really disappointing," said librarian Miriam Moses, 55, noting that the Olympic Village will be high-end housing when the athletes leave.
Yet Moses and others have high praise for the new, sleek Canada Line train linking the airport and downtown, and improvements in the Sea to Sky highway up to the Whistler ski resort, venue for Olympic skiing events.
One of the best windfalls of the Olympics for the already blessed Vancouverites may be the party, the chance to celebrate during two weeks and show off a world-class city to visitors.
"I was feeling blase about it until I got downtown today," Albertson said on Sunday. "And there were the international athletes with their coats and regalia, and I caught a little bit of excitement. I am actually a little bit surprised."
(Additional reporting by Allan Dowd, editing by Miles Evans)