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The Georgian athlete died just hours before what's often considered just about the most joyous event of any Olympic Games, and that's the opening ceremony. Last night in Vancouver, ceremony producers certainly acknowledged the tragedy, but the show did go on. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: Think of the Olympics as a rocket and the opening ceremony, the launch. After nearly seven years on the launch pad - Vancouver won the rights to these games in July 2003 - over 60,000 ecstatic spectators turned BC Place Stadium into mission control.

(Soundbite of cheering crowd)

CROWD: Four, three, two, one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GOLDMAN: And so the opening ceremony began, different in its Canada-centric themes but similar to so many others, whether in Athens, Beijing, Salt Lake City or Vancouver. The opening ceremony is several hours of soaring patriotism, grandeur and - let's face it - weirdness.

(Soundbite of music)

GOLDMAN: There's a guy flying through the air to Joni Mitchell, landing on golden fields that are superimposed on the arena floor. And he's looking around, looking for something. And I'm trying to look for the meaning here.

Well, had I paid attention and read the opening ceremony media guide, I would have learned the guy suspended above the stadium floor was a skilled aerialist named Thomas Saulgrain. He played the role of a young person experiencing life growing up on the immense expanse of Canada's golden prairies, just like Joni Mitchell, whose haunting "Both Sides Now" accompanied Mr. Saulgrain's midair exploits.

A giant, sparkly polar bear, fiddlers and tap dancers, a huge ice floe, maple leaves also were part of show producer David Atkins's vision. Atkins did the Sydney Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies.

Unidentified Man #1: We welcome the aboriginal peoples of Canada.

GOLDMAN: And, as he did in Sydney, Atkins's Vancouver program had a strong sense of Native heritage. The Vancouver Games have had unprecedented involvement of indigenous groups in the bidding process and planning for the games.

(Soundbite of music)

SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS

GOLDMAN: Outside BC Place, a much different message by native Indians who were leading a crowd of about 2,000 anti-Olympic protesters. The chanting had to do with the ongoing dispute over land claims by British Columbian natives and the government. That reality was not part of the show inside BC Place, where the Native production, frankly, looked at times like "Aboriginals: The Musical."

Not to say all was sanitized - that was impossible on a day like Friday.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: Georgia.

GOLDMAN: The sight of Nodar Kumaritashvili's teammates was a jolt in the usually joyous parade of nations, where young athletes wave and cavort and revel in life. The Georgian team decided to stay after Kumaritashvili's death, but they walked around BC Place without smiling, without waving, and wearing black armbands. It was one of several reminders of death amidst all the life.

In his speech, John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, spoke directly to the athletes.

Mr. JOHN FURLONG (Vancouver Organizing Committee): At these games, you now have the added burden to shine and be united around your fallen colleague, Nodar. May you carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders, and compete with his spirit in your hearts.

(Soundbite of applause)

GOLDMAN: Liftoff for these Olympics hasn't been smooth. Tragedy, weather problems that have already postponed a skiing medal event, vocal protests - all have put the Vancouver Games to an early test. But working in its favor is the fact that the Olympics have a way of reinventing themselves every day. A thrilling victory here, a major upset there, a first home-soil gold medal for Canada.

All will not be forgotten, but it'll help.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Vancouver.

SIMON: Photos, medal counts - you can find the latest updates on the Winter Olympics in Vancouver on our Web site, NPR.org.

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