Saturday, February 13, 2010

In Vancouver, celebration and commemoration on opening night

Vancouver's big day arrived on Friday, as the long run up to the games of the 21st Winter Olympiad finally came to an end and Canada's third hosting of an Olympic games was declared underway.

Friday night's much anticipated celebration however, shared the stage with a solemn moment, as Canadians and their invited world community of guests took pause to remember the life of a young athlete tragically killed in a training accident that very morning.

While the Olympic torch was making its final rounds of Vancouver, a twenty one year old Olympian from Georgia, Nodar Kumaritashvil was entering the final turn of his late morning training run when he and his sled flipped into the air, ending in one of the most horrifying crashes that has been seen. The young Georgian would die shortly after from his injuries, bringing home the dangers of many of the sports that Olympians take part in though certainly no one in their worst nightmare would imagine a fatality.

It was a horrible tragedy that brings a lot of the hype of the Olympics into perspective rather quickly, his passing was frequently commemorated during the Opening ceremonies, with the crowd of 60,000 in attendance in BC Place acknowledging the pain of his Georgian team mates as they entered the stadium during the opening ceremonies.

It was with Kumaritashvil's passing as part of the narrative of the night that the Vancouver games were opened, first with solemn silence and then with a symphony of sound and striking visual interpretation.

A rather remarkable visual show was presented to the crowd in the stadium, the estimated 13 million Canadians at home and to a world wide television audience estimated at 3 billion viewing with keen interest to see what Canada would showcase to the world.

The opening notes of the national anthem raised a few eyebrows, with a rather unorthodox interpretation of the national song presented to curious looks by Nikki Yanofsky. Canadians at the best of times have problems remembering the words to O Canada, more than a few would be forgiven if they were under the impression that we somehow had changed things up again and forgotten to inform the masses.

With the four host First Nation's of the region providing the welcoming notes, the next three hours provided a coast to coast to coast tour on Canada, spectacular special effects highlighted the natural environment of the land and oceans, rising totems and separating ice flows, to swimming Orcas, rising polar bears, Dancing Northern lights and wind swept fields of grain, the visual effects were remarkable.

With Donald Sutherland's narrative for the evening, much of Canada's history and current evolution was presented with drama and humour.

Musically we at times seemed caught in a time warp, Bryan Adams and Nelly Furtado opened the show a song co written by Adams and which sounded somewhat as what one would expect from his popular days of the 80's.

Sarah McLauchlan's always haunting voice provided a nice accompaniment to the evenings proceedings, showcasing the games with a sound we associated with many of her major hits of the nineties.

kd Lang best known from the 80's and into the 90's, provided her always haunting rendition of Hallelujah the Leonard Cohen classic that she seems to have ownership of, such is her range and passion for the song. It was perhaps the most poignant of the musical selections of the night touching on all of the emotions of the day.

Joni Mitchell's recording of Both sides now meshed well with the prairie theme, while the fiddlers and Celts of the eastern portion of the program featuring the music of Quebec and the most eastern reaches of Canada, a string of performers including the ever enigmatic Ashley MacIssac all presenting the music most normally associated with those provinces.

The only nod to modern convention it seemed as a bit of spoken work poetry from Shane Koyczan
a performance artist originally from the north, who defined Canadians for the world, in a similar frame that was made famous by Joe the Canadian.

Things were moving along rather quickly though once the official portion of the night's events, the speeches came to pass things certainly seemed to signify the moment as the pace slowed down from the frantic moments of the previous two hours. With another call to remember the fallen Nodar Kumaritashvil, IOC Chairman Jacques Rogge and Vanoc head John Furlong welcomed the participants to the games, Governor General Michaeele Jean officially proclaiming the games open.

The Olympic flag was escorted into the stadium by a cross section of Canadian icons, Betty Fox, Donald Sutherland, Jacques Villeneuve, Anne Murray, Barbara Ann Scott, Romeo D'Allaire, Julie Payette and Bobby Orr carried the flag across the stadium floor, handing it off to a honour guard of RCMP for the official raising

The oaths were administered, the athletes hymn presented with a nod to the Opera and then it was all eyes on the entrance as Rick Hansen began the grand finale with his arrival with the Olympic torch, which would then be handed off to a string of his well known fellow Canadian athletes. The flame would pass through the hands of Catriona Le May Doan, Steve Nash and Nancy Greene before it would be passed to Wayne Gretzky.

From that point the five final torch bearers would proceed to the centre of the stadium torches held high, awaiting the rising of the Olympic cauldron, awaiting the rising of the Olympic cauldron, nervously awaiting the rising of the Olympic cauldron.

As with any live event, something surprising can always happen and as Canada prepared to share its flame with the world, technology would let the nation down for a brief period of time, technical difficulties as they say prevented the entire cauldron apparatus to rise on cue.

In the end, only three of the four shards of ice would rise in the air, leaving Le May Doan to stand apart along with Rich Hansen, from those that would light the cauldron, still the spectacle was a fascinating visual display missing part and all.

With the stadium cauldron ablaze, Gretzky would then take to the back of a pick up truck for a rather strange ride through the rain drenched streets of downtown Vancouver. A city where apparently the police had taken refuge from the rain judging by the swarming crowds of followers closing in on the vehicle, as Gretzky led the way to his final destiny of the night the lighting of the waterfront cauldron, the perpetual symbol for the Vancouver games.

The final ride through the streets for the flame perhaps indicative of the organizers wishing to share the cross Canada torch run with the crowds one more time before competition was to get underway.

With the waterfront signal set, the opening was complete, bringing to a close the day of celebration, marked with sadness for an athlete who highlighted the spirit of competition and the fragility of human life.

During his opening remarks, John Furlong called on all the athletes to carry the spirit of Nodar Kumaritashvil with them during the seventeen days of competition, if the games are remembered for anything, one hopes that it is that memory above all.

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