NPR logo The Opening Ceremonies Are Muted, But The Bright Lights Remain


The Opening Ceremonies Are Muted, But The Bright Lights Remain

Wayne Gretzky carried the Olympic torch during the somewhat somber opening ceremonies on Friday night. Jasper Juinen/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

The opening ceremonies are supposed to be the most frivolous part of any Olympics. No one has won or lost anything yet. Everyone's hopes are intact; nothing is impossible. Most of the athletes will lose, but they don't mind. A parade of national celebrities performs, fields of dancers wear costumes with light bulbs on them, and the announcers tell you about an athlete raised in the desert who somehow discovered that he was born to be a speed skater. He is the only member of his country's delegation, and he is instantly your favorite, and you never see him again, but you remember him.

The start of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver on Friday night never had a chance to be like that. Earlier in the day, Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger, had died in a crash during a training run on a course that was already causing controversy among many who believed it to be unsafe — controversy that will now play itself out during an investigation.

Georgia's delegation marched in black scarves and armbands in honor of Nodar Kumaritashvili. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

As if those figurative clouds weren't adequate, events were already being postponed because of rain as well. The opening ceremonies themselves were safely indoors, but it wasn't the sort of day that could end with a purely silly, extravagant party — indeed, the ceremonies were dedicated to Kumaritashvili, and a moment of silence held in his honor. His team marched in the Parade of Nations in black scarves and armbands.

Other things, too, gave the evening a tone that was more restrained than usual: of all the Canadian-bred musical interludes to place in this typically bombastic setting, it couldn't get much more richly mournful than a stunning performance by k.d. lang of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Furthermore, the crowd had been provided with drums, so when they responded to a moment, or a remark, or the sound of someone's name, they weren't limited to screaming and clapping like a raucous bunch of football fans; they made a rumble, like a thunderstorm.

And yet, even on a day that was awful in many ways, the costumes with light bulbs on them still showed up.

The ceremonies go on, after the jump.

The show was largely based around Canada's national identity. Sometimes, that was a lot of fun, as with the big group of First Nations people who danced right through the Parade Of Nations — though commentator Bob Costas, who was right on the money in setting a respectful but upbeat tone, mischievously mentioned that he'd seen a few "take a knee" now and then. Sometimes, it was a little strange, as with a long sequence where it appeared that a guy created Canada by making lightning circles, and then constellations were invented, and then there was a giant bear, and then there were trees, and ... it was sort of complicated, in the great tradition of Olympic ceremony production numbers that appear to be inspired by fever dreams.

This spirit bear is part of Canada's history, and also has a lot of lights on it. Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Another effort to combine a lot cultural elements into a single sequence involved tapdancing, fiddlers, and a canoe that rose into the sky, sort of reminiscent of what happens at the end of Cats. In fact, if you could combine Cats, Riverdance, and "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," you'd get pretty close to what the segment felt like, except that you would have to add sparklers to both the heels of the dancers and the bows of the fiddles. It is the Olympics, after all.

Ever the polite hosts, Canada seemed perfectly willing to make everyone else feel as comfortable as possible by introducing as many familiar Canadians as it could. One song was performed by Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams and another by Sarah McLachlan, while the Olympic flag was eventually carried into the stadium by flag-bearers including Anne Murray, Donald Sutherland, and Bobby Orr. (Despite heavy use of familiar faces, this did not come off as condescending, which is more than can be said for the piece NBC ran early in the evening in which it informed viewers that Canada is a great friend to the U.S., having provided us with both Seth Rogen and crucial support during World War II.)

Team Azerbaijan had the night's best pants at the opening ceremonies. Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

And, of course, there was the Parade Of Nations, which always brings great moments like the crazy pants worn by the team from Azerbaijan, or the Bermuda athlete in his red shorts, or the lone Ethiopian cross-country skier. We learned that Liechtenstein has a population of about 36,000 people and sent six athletes. Meaning, in theory, that one out of every 6,000 Liechstensteinians is at the Winter Olympics as a competing athlete right now. We learned that it was Pakistan's first Winter Olympics, and Ghana's.

Not everything worked on television as well as it probably worked live: a lovely idea where skiers and snowboarders seemed to float in midair was perpetually interrupted by tight TV close-ups that, particularly in high definition, showed off every detail of the wires and harnesses and ruined the effect. (This was where the light-bulb costumes appeared, incidentally: on skaters who circled the snowy "mountain" fashioned from fabric as the suspended snowboarders did flips.)

The only real hitch came at the end. Four people were permitted to share the honor of lighting the cauldron: Olympians Catriona LeMay Doan and Nancy Greene, the NBA's Steve Nash, and a fellow you may have heard of named Wayne Gretzky. The four of them stood at their positions, waiting for the four arms of the cauldron apparatus to rise out of the floor.

And then they stood some more.

Eventually, Gretzky's arched eyebrow made it clear that this was not part of the plan. In the end — it was nearing midnight on the East Coast, after all — they had to proceed with only three of the arms in place (somebody on the construction team, one senses, is so fired). Gretzky then went outside in the rain to carry the flame to an outdoor version of the cauldron, which lit up perfectly after a heart-stopping hesitation in which it appeared that it might have gone out.

Ultimately, in the spirit of the rest of the night, the lighting came together as well as it could, in spite of the fact that it wasn't in the cards for it to go as anyone had planned.