Vancouver Mayor's Special Flag-Waving

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 22 -- On Sunday afternoon Sergio Chiamparino, the mayor of Turin will complete the very mundane, ceremonial task of handing the giant 16-foot Olympic flag to the mayor of the next Winter Olympics venue, Vancouver, B.C. By tradition, each mayor will wave the flag as he clutches it.

Which presents a problem for Sam Sullivan the new mayor of Vancouver.

For the past 27 years, he has been a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair after a skiing accident he suffered as a teenager. This has left him with only the most minimal use of his hands. Grabbing a flag is out of the question, let alone waving it.

In an effort to resolve this issue, someone raised the possibility to Sullivan that he could have someone else take the flag while he sat alongside in his chair. That person didn't know Sam Sullivan very well.

A man who drives his own car with special hand pedals, has taught himself Cantonese and flies ultra-light aircraft will not allow someone to stand beside him and wave a flag with millions of people watching across the globe.

"I have never chosen to take that option," he said.

So he attacked the problem the way he has torn into everything in his life: He called in the city engineers, pondered the situation and created a special device that will fit on the side of his automated chair and will wave the flag.

Wednesday evening, as he waited to check into his hotel he looked down at his legs and laughed.

"They have commented in Vancouver that we sent Canada's worst skier to the Olympics," he said

Anyone expecting the 46-year-old Sullivan to be a diminutive man squeezed into the corner of a wheelchair will be surprised when they see him. He is tall and angular with a slightly graying brown hair. It is easy to see how robust he must have been when he was 19 and tore down the ski slope at Cypress Mountain in North Vancouver.

In a moment, Sullivan's life changed. On a whim he told a friend he wanted to try a trick. He had the man stand still with his legs spread wide and attempted to ski through the opening between the man's limbs. Instead, he crashed into his friend and heard his neck snap. When he realized his arms were stretched above his head but his body felt like it was in the fetal position, he knew instantly what had happened.

Initially, he couldn't move his arms. It took him years of convincing himself that he had to have use of his hands before he was able to get movement in his shoulders, arms and then hands. But he was also devastated. He had always been an independent man, his friend Abraham Rogatnick, a former architecture professor at the University of British Columbia said. By the time he was 27, he was living in a rehabilitation facility, surviving on public assistance and was considering suicide.

"It was a very serious moment for me," Sullivan said.

He decided to change everything. When asked exactly what moment inspired Sullivan to do this, his friend Rogatnick said he didn't know. He said he isn't sure Sullivan exactly knows, either. But something awakened inside him. The young man who loved the piano, played in a band and enjoyed reading, came back to life.

He invented a sailboat called the Martin-6 that quadriplegics can operate simply by blowing into a straw. When that worked, he developed a special seat with a single wheel that would allow a disabled person to hike with the assistance of two companions.

Then came nonprofit companies that he formed for his ventures. He took classes at Simon Fraser University in the Vancouver suburbs, earning a degree in business administration in 1987. Suddenly, the world was without limitations.

It wasn't long after that Grace McCarthy, the former deputy premier of British Columbia, suggested he enter politics. He ran for city council and won.

Those who know Sullivan are amazed by his intellect. He fills his idle time watching video cassettes on subjects as varied as mathematics, physics and foreign languages. Rogatnick said his Chinese friends believe Sullivan speaks better Cantonese than they themselves.

"This is one of the reasons he likes me to be with him," Rogatnick said. "I am a professor of art and architecture and history. He likes me to make comments on things involving art and architecture."

Rogatnick plans on taking Sullivan on a tour of Turin's famous buildings, including the Mole Antonelliana, an enormous tower that dominates the city here. Then he will take Sullivan on a tour of Rome when the mayor has to return to Italy for the closing ceremonies of the Paralympics that follow these games. Rogatnick hopes to introduce his friend to the mayor of Rome, then drive him north, through Florence, Siena, Pisa and into Turin, stopping to look at the great buildings along the way.

The irony of this is that Rogatnick is 82 years old.

"I'm almost twice his age," Rogatnick says with a laugh.

But this is the Sam Sullivan's world. He loves to be surrounded by intellectuals.

Every Saturday night he hosts a dinner at a hotel near the downtown apartment, three doors down from his partner, Lynn Zanatta, an old high school sweetheart, who began dating him again seven years ago after both had been divorced. He invites artists, musicians and authors to sit around and talk about their projects. Always they follow the same rule. Each person talks about the things he or she is working on, whether it's a song or book. Then they all begin to talk. About anything. About everything.

"It's a very stimulating discussion," Rogatnick said. "There is no other politician who has stimulated me that way intellectually in Vancouver."

Sullivan is a member of the Non-Partisan Association, considered the conservative party in British Columbia. But his politics have crossed all kinds of lines. He and Rogatnick first met when Sullivan was working on a drug center in Vancouver where addicts could take their drugs under the watchful eye of doctors and nurses, the idea being that they would not overdose or use dirty needles.

This fascinated Sullivan, who immediately had to do more research.

One night he bought an addict crack cocaine with the promise that he could watch the man take the drugs and then chronicle the ensuing reaction. To the then-council member it was an intellectual study. To his political opponents, this was a crime.

Nonetheless it didn't impede his ability to win the city's highest office, which he took in a tight election last fall.

"There are a lot of things I didn't expect [about being mayor]," he said Wednesday night.

Like what, he was asked.

"Just going to Italy to fly a flag. But it's very engaging the way my life has completely revolved around the work of being mayor."

Still he has taken the time to prepare. While his days were filled with budget meetings and bickering politicians, he was secretly working on his Italian, practicing with Rogatnick, who speaks fluent Italian. No one other than Lynn knew he was doing this.

And he floored the Vancouver media as he rolled around the airport chattering in perfect Italian to the employees who helped him into his specially fitted van.

Sunday, the world will see a man who hasn't properly used his arms in 27 years waving the Olympic flag.

Then again, it will be just another chapter in the amazing life of Sam Sullivan.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company