Careful what you wish for. For two weeks, armchair pop-spectacle producers from coast to coast indulged in one of the most popular events of this Vancouver Olympic season: critiquing the opening ceremonies. Too morose. Too much weird symbolism. Too many Aboriginal dancers.
And, this being Canada, everybody had their own checklist of the excluded. Not enough Ontario (said the Ontarians). Not enough spoken French. Not enough youth, humour, urbanity, what have you.
But what would happen if some cosmic joker actually wrote down the sum of all the kvetching and produced a show that gave Canadian audiences what so many had complained was missing? Okay, you nation of backseat drivers, we’ll give you rappers and phonetic French and rock bands and Michael Bublé until you beg for Aboriginal dancers.
In the end, this was more or less what we got in the closing show, which was produced, like the opening, by Australian freelance spectacle producers David Atkins and Ignatius Jones. And its best feature was that it might make some viewers look back more fondly on the sometimes-luminous opening show.
From the opening ceremony’s first moments, when a snowboarder burst out of a movie screen and through the Olympic rings at one end of the stadium, that earlier show displayed something few CanCult events have managed to show: rhythm. A pulse. Obligatory ceremonial moments raced by. But Atkins and Jones paused and luxuriated in richer material, beginning with the arrival of the Aboriginal “hosts” from four southern B.C. First Nations and the appearance of four towering, translucent Salish welcome poles.
Fabric facsimiles of the northern lights descended from the ceiling; a huge, luminous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Bear appeared, jetted itself briefly into the air and then sank beneath the waves. Computer-animated projections of Haida whales swam in the fabric sky. A lone figure dancing in air over images of wheat while the house audio system played a recording of Joni Mitchell’s decade-old reissue of her classic Both Sides Now.
It was sometimes a bit rustic and solemn but it had a purpose, and it suggested to Vancouver’s legions of visitors that they had come to a serious, thoughtful place. The only real break in the spell came when part of the hydraulic Olympic flame cauldron refused to rise up for the ceremony’s climax.
The closing ceremony began with a good-natured joke on that moment. A theatrically bewildered Catriona Le May Doan rose out of the BC Place floor to light, at last, that last part of the cauldron.
Much of the next hour was a bit of a jumble, with the anthems of Greece (the Olympics’ home), Russia (the site of Sochi 2014), and the Olympic movement bursting forth at odd intervals, while a parade of acrobats in giant radioactive hamster balls sang the praises of Sochi to the tunes of Tchaikovsky and Borodin.
It was amid this confusion that the closing show had one of its two surprising, perfect moments. VANOC CEO John Furlong moved to Canada 30 years ago from Ireland. When he arrived, his official biography notes, the immigration officer told him, “Welcome to Canada—make us better.” He worked so hard for years to fill that order by delivering these Olympics. And even though he struggled mightily to pronounce the French parts of his script, Furlong’s speech captured some of the magic in the way many Canadians felt at the end of these Games.
Let us, he said, “compare for a moment the Canada that was with the Canada that now is. I believe we Canadians tonight are stronger, more united, more in love with our country and more connected with our country than ever before. These Olympic Games have lifted us up. If the Canada that came together on opening night was a little mysterious to some, now it no longer is. Now you know us, eh?”
The Games did tell the world more about Canada than the evening’s elaborate program. And Furlong’s speech was about it for class and subtlety. William Shatner and Catherine O’Hara told jokes about making love in a canoe and peeing in the snow. Michael J. Fox showed up, briefly, for that other perfect moment of unexpected dignity, which ended when Michael Bublé showed up in a Mountie uniform for an outburst of pageantry that seemed to be built on the premise that if you pile up every known cliché about Canada, you get something new and funny. Canoes, giant beavers, inflatable Mounties and dancing maple leaves cavorted around Bublé. Atkins and Jones, the producers, spent two years touring Canada studying our culture and history before sketching out the opening ceremony. That spectacular show seemed to suggest their naïveté could give them a fresh new perspective on what had threatened to become hoary CanCult clichés. By the Games’ end, all they had to offer was the clichés.
Finally the fancy stuff was over and the evening turned into a campus kegger. Nickelback, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morissette, Hedley, and other bands offered up a succession of fist-pounding anthems. Atkins and Jones finally abandoned any attempt at profundity and ended the night with a party.
By a happy coincidence, that was exactly the country’s mood. On the last night of the Games there could be no buzz-kill. Sidney Crosby’s hastily improvised shot on net had brought Canada’s men’s hockey team an amazing 14th gold medal. Suddenly the troubled opening of the Games—the foul and drizzly weather, the organizational bumps, the surly British tabloid hacks announcing on a few days’ evidence that these were the worst Games ever—seemed unimaginably distant. Across the country, parties broke out wherever crowds of revellers could find a propitious park, empty lot or pub. Even though millions watched the closing ceremony, it was mostly just so they could take a break between post-game and late-night street parties. That too is all to the good.
From beginning to end and at a hundred moments in between, these Olympics often felt like a battle between the burden of organization and the liberating spirit of an athlete on a roll. Organization was not always Vancouver’s strong suit. There have been smoother Olympics. But it is hard to remember an Olympics where the athletes so often provided the bright side. Vicious rivalries and skullduggery were banished. In their place was a world of bright-eyed young men and women who came to fight fiercely but fair.
Before we knew any of that would happen, the opening ceremony felt tentative, freighted with the weight of expectation. But it burst into radiant promise when Atkins and Jones focused on two great Canadian voices: first Joni Mitchell’s, and then k.d. lang’s. For the closing ceremonies, the producers tried to recapture that feeling with an appearance by Neil Young. Young is a legend who has mellowed as he ages, until he is now well-placed to serve as a ceremonial bard. But it does him no disservice to say it wasn’t his reedy tenor that carried the night. It was a nation bursting into song in a thousand taverns and homes that gave these Olympics voice.