Despite flame-lighting snafu, opening ceremonies impress
By Tom Weir
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Neither protesters nor the pall of an athlete's death could halt the beginning of a Winter Olympics that host Canada hopes will end with its first victory in the medal count.
But the night's crowning moment ended on an embarrassing note when there was a malfunction during the lighting of the Olympic flame.
Four pillars were supposed to rise at angles from the stadium floor and surround the caldron. But after a delay of about three minutes, one pillar never rose.
The show still went on, with a foursome of Canadian athletes that included Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash lighting the caldron in unison.
Despite the rocky conclusion, Friday night's opening ceremonies still reverberated louder than ever at a Winter Olympics, even if only because it was the first time the event was held indoors.
A crowd of about 60,000 made its way into BC Place despite long lines for security checks and the traffic-clogging efforts of about 1,500 demonstrators who protested the economic drain of the Games.
Their reward was seeing such Canadian musical stars as Nelly Furtado, Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan and k.d. lang perform, albeit mostly while lip-synching.
They also cheered the 2,500 athletes who entered during the Parade of Nations, and naturally saved the loudest roar for the Canadian delegation that entered last behind flag-bearer Clara Hughes, a 2006 gold medalist in speedskating.
Seconds before the program began with a snowboarder gliding down an artificial slope in the stadium's upper deck, solemn notice was taken of Friday's tragedy at the Vancouver Olympics.
A video board announcement informed the crowd the opening ceremonies were dedicated to the memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the luger from the nation of Georgia who died after a crash during a practice run.
The crowd conveyed its sympathy by giving the small Georgia contingent a standing ovation as it entered during the Parade of Nations. Dancers representing Canada's indigenous people also came to a stop as the Georgians circled the stadium floor, and understandably were the only contingent not to wave excitedly at spectators.
Kumaritashvili was memorialized later with a minute of silence and also when International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said, "We extend our deep sympathies to his family, his friends and his countrymen."
In the same manner that many Canadians have been predicting a Canadian medals victory, the entertainment included a rapping poet who tried to put the host nation in perspective.
He told the audience that "Some people say what defines us is something as simple as trees and thank you," and that, "Yes, we say zed instead of zee." He added that "We believe in generations beyond our own," that "We are more than a laundry list of things to do and places to see," and that "Canada is the what in what's new."
The most dramatic performance came when a symbolic mountain rose from the stadium floor and became a movie screen for Olympic highlights.
If the entertainment segments of Vancouver's opening ceremonies don't find a place in Olympic lore it perhaps will be because they follow those of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, where 2008 drummers got the performance off to a thundering start.
Vancouver's stadium floor was covered with a coat of make-believe snow, and there was a shower of maple leaves, a national symbol. Special effects revolved mostly around dancers seemingly floating into the air, another staple of Beijing's show.
But there was no signature moment, like when U.S. athletes carried an American flag from the World Trade Center into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, or when Barcelona lighted its Olympic caldron with a flaming arrow fired by an archer in 1992.
And even with the flame-lighting snafu, Vancouver did stage a more memorable opening ceremony than Canada's two previous efforts.
At the 1988 Winter Olympics, the highlight was a rodeo segment that evoked the Calgary Stampede. And the opening of the 1976 Summer Olympics is remembered mostly for all the building cranes that dotted the Montreal skyline, marking unfinished projects.
The U.S. team filed in behind flag-bearer Mark Grimmette, 39, of Muskegon, Mich., who is competing in his fifth Olympics in the luge doubles.
Missing from the U.S. delegation was skiing star Lindsey Vonn, who decided not to attend because of the shin injury that threatens to keep her out of competition.
"I'll be watching on TV at home, probably while doing therapy," Vonn told the Associated Press. "I have to be thinking about my races and my leg and trying to make my shin feel as good as possible before the races. I'm disappointed I won't be there with my teammates but I'm sure they will represent their country really well."
Several other athletes didn't take part because of concerns about fatigue from standing outside the stadium while waiting to take part in the three-hour ceremony. But U.S. speedskater Chad Hedrick wasn't among them, even though he will defend his gold medal in the 5,000-meter race Saturday.
"From my experience last time, I can't skip it," said Hedrick, explaining that he drew inspiration from marching in the Opening Ceremonies the night before winning his gold at Torino, Italy, in 2006.
About 2,500 athletes from a record 82 nations are taking part in the XXI Winter Olympics, including first-time participants the Cayman Islands, Columbia, Ghana, Montenegro, Pakistan, Peru and Serbia.