Protesters sweep through downtown Vancouver

Chanting “We ain’t got no tickets!” and “Homes Not Games,” more than 1,000 protesters swept through downtown Vancouver toward the Olympic opening ceremony Friday but were held back by police before they could block spectators from entering the celebration.

Billed as an action “against capitalism and colonization,” the first of two major street rallies mobilized demonstrators ranging from aboriginal rights groups to advocates for the homeless, all aiming to mount one of the biggest-ever organized protests against the Olympic Games.

“There’s never been an Olympic protest like this. This is a first,” said Chris Shaw, spokesman for 2010 Watch, which claims Canadian citizens are bearing the brunt of the multibillion-dollar cost of a sporting event they say will benefit land developers and corporate sponsors.

“It was one of the largest rallies in Vancouver history, and the protest led right up to the door of the [International Olympic Committee],” Shaw said.

The demonstrations never presented a threat to Olympic events, which commenced without a hitch even as several hundred protesters were still shouting and waving flags outside, held back by a stern line of police on horseback.

At one point, masked, black-clad demonstrators carrying an anarchist flag pushed briefly toward police, who forcefully pushed back.

But during most of the four-hour rally, a small number of police on bicycles simply followed and observed.

Rain and a chilly breeze did most of the work, and as the ceremony inside got well underway, only a handful remained outside.

Shouting matches erupted with counter-demonstrators who showed up with patriotic red maple leaf banners, shouting: “They say protest, we say party!”

“Get a job!” yelled one group of young men.

The atmosphere in most of Vancouver was festive throughout the day, with spectators lining the sidewalks and whooping as the Olympic torch relay made its way to the city center.

But speakers at the rally denounced Canada’s failure to sign treaties with its aboriginal First Nations, cutbacks in funding for education and the arts, and development of tar sands oil in Alberta.

“With Glowing Hearts, We Kill the Arts,” said one sign, referring to Canada’s motto for the Games.

“We and our children are going to be paying for these Games for decades,” said Leo Hunt, a 55-year-old sawmill worker.

Earlier in the day, the Olympic torch’s progress through Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside was blocked twice when protesters sat in the street and blocked the route, prompting in one case a 20-minute standoff.

In both cases, police arrived on horseback to protect the runners, but the relay was diverted to avoid a confrontation.

Dozens of people shouted “Shame on you!” as the torch made its way down the street, only a few hours after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had carried the flame to resounding applause on the other, wealthier end of the city.

“They should be building homes for people, not spending it on the Olympics,” said Beatrice Starr, one of several women who blocked the road near Victory Park.

“So we sat right in the road there. Yup. And I’d do it again.”