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Vancouver Olympic opening ceremony: Wayne Gretzky lights cauldron

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | 11:09 pm

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Canwest News Service

An audience of hundreds of millions of people cast its collective gaze towards British Columbia as final preparations were put in place for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony Friday. The question of who would light the flame was answered, though not without controversy when Wayne Gretzky emerged from the pack and hit the streets to the delight of much of the downtown core.

Thousands of people ran toward the International Broadcast Centre at Waterfront around 9 p.m. Friday to watch hockey legend Wayne Gretzky light the cauldron.

“We’re pretty stoked,” said Chris Bueschkens, who, with his girlfriend Krystina Long, ran all the way from across downtown after spotting Gretzky running with the torch.

“We saw him, got our bill from Moxie’s and ran all the way here,” said Long.

Gretzky received the torch following the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Fireworks lit up the sky immediately afterward.

“I heard the noise and ran here all the way from Howe and Burrard,” said Howard Lai. “It’s pretty hectic. It’s a surreal moment.”

Estelle Vallee, who arrived from Paris in November, watched the festivities with local friends.

“I really like how countries can unite for this one event,” said Vallee. “I’m so excited!”

A capacity crowd of 60,000 crammed into Vancouver’s BC Place for the festivities. The ceremony, which was slated to last more than two hours, began with the audience, each wearing different coloured ponchos, doing the hockey wave to create the effect of a clock ticking down.

But the first genuine Olympic thrill of the night was from a video that appeared on giant screens, showing a snowboarder launching himself down a precipice and, seemingly, into the stadium. There, a real snowboarder shot down a ramp and through the Olympic rings, landing on the arena’s snow-covered floor.

Thousands of white clad attendees gave the arena a snow-covered appearance as the orchestra merged God Save The Queen merged and O Canada as dignitaries were introduced to the crowd.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police troop brought in a giant Canadian flag to huge cheers from the home crowd before 16-year-old jazz-pop singer Nikki Yanofsky, of “I Believe” fame roared into a (long and loud) rendition of O Canada.

Four large ice sculpture totem poles rose up from the floor and representatives of the Musqueam, Squamish, Tsleil-waututh and Lil’wat aboriginal host nations welcomed the crowd.

What followed was an immense drum circle involving aboriginal youth from across the country – Inuit, Metis, and the First Nations of the Prairies, the North and the East. That massive dance celebration continued as the athletes of the 82 nations of the 2010 Olympic Games emerged from the shadows with national costumes and flags aplenty.

Albanian alpine skier Erjon Tola enjoyed the honour of being the first one onto the ice with his national flag, followed by Algeria, Andorr and Argentina. It would be a long wait for Uzbekistan’s Oleg Shamaev, not to mention the Canadian Olympic team who, as host nation, traditionally appear last.

Chinese athletes appeared carrying Canadian flags and, as the ceremony continued, online commenters on Twitter pounded out 140-character missives relishing the spotlight on the Terminal City.

@Huckdoll wrote, “Oh my gosh, my four year olds are watching this in awe and it makes my heart so happy.” @vic_toria tweeted, “Almost at the Canadian team. I’m ready for more tears.” @candrie summed it up with, “politics aside… I am feeling a lot of pride right now – FINALLY”

Some of the comments were less patriotic and more observational and wry. @carleab wrote, “The forced disco dancing of the people welcoming the athletes as they walk in makes me feel sorry for them.”

United States Vice-President Joe Biden leapt to his feet and applauded as the red, white and blue-clad Americans entered the arena to a big cheer from the predominently North American crowd. Superstar snowboarder Shawn “The Flying Tomato” White was one of a majority snapping cellphone pictures as they marched the floor. White’s sponsors Red Bull recently built him a half-million-dollar half pipe to train for the Games.

The biggest cheer, naturally, was for the Canadian team, which rolled out in a sea of red and brought the crowd to their feet in roaring fashion. Speedskater Clara Hughes led the way, waving the national flag hard while the labouring First Nations dancers managed to find a second (or even third) wind in encouraging the home team around the floor.

Canada has the second largest team at these Games behind the Americans.

In the competition for best pants, the Czech Republic turned heads with a red and blue camouflage outfit that brought on instant migraines for some observers in the newsroom. Azerbaijan competed hard for the most notable attire honour early with their paisley pantaloons, but couldn’t compete with the magic 3D picture-inspired attire of the Czechs.

In the quest for the best looking team, it would be hard to pass over the stunning Italians, though the sole representative of Mongolia, in a golden national constume-inspired gown, gave it her best shot.

With the athletes march over, Victoria-raised musical star Nelly Furtado and easy listening legend Bryan Adams took to the stage to sing in the Games.

As the narration of Donald Sutherland talked the audience through the show, talking of how Canada began as an icy refuge for a variety of people from around the world, a snowstorm was unleashed on BC Place and fur-clad performers struggled against the supposed cold and wind – because, you know, Canada isn’t a nation of igloos or anything…

Resembling something out of Lord of the Rings (or the world’s biggest snowglobe), a recreation of the northern lights dropped from the ceiling as a giant LED-covered floating spirit bear rose from the floor.

From Twitter again: @Saucydragonfly – As a Canadian I just want y’all to know we don’t usually wear this much white after Labour Day.

With the cold rolling back, the floor turned into a sea of orcas before a recreation of Cathedral Grove rose from the ground, depicting totem poles and forest canopy as dolphins and salmon rolled around the floor

Sarah MacLachlan then took the stage, seated at a piano, playing her song Ordinary Miracle.

The floor was soon handed to slam-master poet Shane Koyczan who promptly exalted Canada’s worth, trees, the letter ‘zed’ and the concept of “thank you” with his poem We Are More. Locals crammed into Robson Square in downtown Vancouver promptly rose as one and cheered loudly throughout, according to our reporters on the scene.

“Some say what defines us is as simple as please and thank you.”

“Canada is the ‘what’ in ‘what’s new?’”

“We are more than a nation of whale watchers and lumberjacks, more than backpacks and hiking trails, we are hammers and nails building bridges, towards those who are willing to walk across.”

“We are the true north, strong and free!” he announced, adding, “What’s more, is we didn’t just say it.. we made it be.”

In one of the highlights of the night, 180 punk fiddlers and tap dancers took to the stage and the floor turned into a fall maple leaf-covered lawn as the event shifted towards the modern version of Canada that many abroad would have no idea about. Ashley MacIsaac played it out to a rousing finish.

@ninjarunner: Welcome to Canada. Our Hells Angels can tapdance

The prairies were next to be depicted as a Canadian youth ran across a wheat field before flying into the air to a slow Joni Mitchell ballad; a stark antithesis of the act that came before it.

Just when the audience may have considered a nap, a glacier arose from the floor and a variety of skiers, snowboarders and the like floated around it in a trippy finale featuring Olympics footage projected onto the side of the mountain as skaters rolled around its base.

That saw some in the audience welling up with tears.

But it wasn’t all celebration: The Georgian contingent walked out in sombre fashion, with the untimely death of 21-year-old luger Nodar Kumaritashvili very fresh in the minds of all present. The crowd stood in their honour as they walked the floor.

Kumaritashvili crashed in practice today and was flung from his luge into a supporting pole beside the track. He died of his injuries shortly after.

His passing was recognized during the ceremony shortly before the cauldron-lighting with a moment of silence.

“This is a very sad day,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said, wiping tears from his eyes at the start of an early afternoon news conference at the Main Media Centre. “The IOC is in deep mourning.

“Here you have a young athlete who lost his life pursuing his passion. He had a dream to participate at the Olympic Games, he trained hard, and he had this fatal accident. I have no words to say what we feel.” An equally shaken John Furlong, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, had to pause and compose himself while speaking.

“We are heart-broken beyond words to be sitting here,” he said. “I am sorry to be in this position to be reporting this to you. It’s not something that I have prepared – ever thought I would need to be prepared for.”

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he expressed his condolences to the president of Georgia, calling the death a “terrible tragedy.”

Harper said he’s planning to remain in Vancouver for the next few days to cheer on Team Canada.

As the ceremony continued to the torch-lighting, kd Lang sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; and yes, she actually sang it.

The Olympic flag was brought out by a collection of Canada’s most prominent people; Betty Fox, Donald Sutherland, Jacques Villeneuve, Olympian Barbara-Ann Scott, Anne Murray, Donald Sutherland, General Romeo Dallare, Bobby Orr, and astronaut Julie Payette.

Opera soprano Measha Brueggergosma shook the rafters with a bombastic version of The Olympic Hymn, dripping in jewelry from Toronto jeweler Myles Myndham, before Canadian womens hockey captain Hayley Wickenheiser read the Olympic Oath.

Quebec singer Garou followed.

Earlier, technical difficulties beset Olympic organizers in Whister during the Opening Ceremonies based on the slopes.

The main TV feed to the celebrations there shut down, showing only Vanoc commericals and footage of the crowd waving. Some of the crowd began leaving to see the ceremonies on their own televisions as rain fell.

In downtown Vancouver, thousands of people who had hoped to watch the opening ceremony from the LiveCity sites in downtown Vancouver were disappointed as crowds far outnumbered the available space.

Spectators were being turned away after being told the sites were completely full.

Similar crowds turned out in Richmond, where the O-Zone location saw queues nearly a mile long, from three different entrances.

Word from YVR painted the facility as being nigh silent as people crowded around TVs to watch the ceremony. Downtown was likewise – tens of thousands crammed in and around LiveCity venues, or anywhere else a TV was functional.

And what they all wanted to see was who would light the Olympic torch.

As Rick Hansen wheeled into the arena holding the torch, a collective gasp emerged as people assumed it would be him, only to be foiled when Catriona Le May Doan took the flame forward to Rick Nash, who ran it around to Nancy Greene, who ran a solid leg towards The Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

He then moved around to a set spot, turned and faced the centre of the arena and, with the other relay runners all at similar spots, it dawned on us all… they would ALL light the flame.

Or at least, they would try. A malfunctioning hydraulic left Catriona Le May Doan holding a torch with nothing to light, looking very unimpressed. O Canada.

Thankfully, the one moment of failure on the night wasn’t the final moment, as Gretzky quickly left the arena, hopped on the back of a pickup, and toured downtown Vancouver streets with the flame while assorted drunks and happy folks chased after him cheering in a moment of true west coast Canadiana.

Dancing in the streets ensued as the city population spilled onto sidewalks, realizing what they were seeing on TV was now coming down the road right by them. Vancouver’s rain, falling heavily, didn’t dispel the mob.

The tour ended with Gretzky lighting a flame at a giant cauldron near the Convention Centre as fireworks burst overhead.

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2 Responses to “Vancouver Olympic opening ceremony: Wayne Gretzky lights cauldron”

  1. Rod Smith says:
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    Would Steve Nash be upset at being called Rick Nash, no probably not, afterall he is Canadian.

  2. Betsy says:
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    I watched the opening and this report covers a visual spectacular really well – and that’s not easy to do with words! I hoped kd Lang was the real thing. Thanks for making that clear!

    Please continue discussion on the forum: link