The Show of Shows

The opening ceremonies had something few Canadian cultural events display: rhythm. A pulse. Plus an army of demonic fiddlers and a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Bear.


Even as it inspires a hopeful nation and sweeps beyond its borders around a troubled world, the power of the Olympic dream remains sharply circumscribed. On Friday night Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, addressed the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics via video-link. He called for armies to “lay down their weapons” and observe the traditional Olympic Truce. At that moment, halfway around the world, 15,000 Afghan, U.S. and British soldiers opened the traditional Can of Whoop-Ass on several hundred entrenched Taliban fighters in the southern Afghan town of Marjah. So much for truces.

Throughout the opening weekend of these Games, assorted other enemies of wishful thinking remained intractable. Street protests tested the good cheer that united much of Vancouver. The weather played devilish variations, by turns windy, warm, rainy or simply miserable. The forces of linguistic discord set in after the opening ceremonies made too little place for the sound of the French language.

The worst moment came before the Games had even begun, when the laws of physics plucked the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili off the track of the Whistler Sliding Centre and flung his body like a rag doll into a metal girder, killing him.

If grace and goodwill had any hope amid all this, it was because there remain a few stubborn forces for good in this world that have not yet lost their power to dispel foul spirits. Chief among them last week: the dependable good manners of Vancouverites entertaining guests, and the fierce tenacity of impossibly fit kids on skates and skis. Within days, dozens of medals had been awarded to bright-eyed new heroes from 18 nations. Among their number stood a quintet of fresh additions to the Canadian pantheon: freestyle moguls skier Jennifer Heil (silver), speed skater Kristina Groves (bronze), snowboarders Mike Robertson (silver) and Maëlle Ricker (gold), and Alexandre Bilodeau, the modest and madcap freestyle moguls skier who bombed down an icy slope to grab the first gold medal any Canadian had ever won during an Olympics at home.

When Bilodeau broke Canada’s Olympics-host gold jinx on Sunday night, “It almost felt like the fire alarm was pulled for the whole city and everyone went out into the street,” Vancouver Games CEO John Furlong said. And indeed it was so. Vancouver has never looked this gorgeous and decked out, its people never so eager to fill the streets, cavort with visitors, wave a flag, stuff a pub to the rafters and cheer the exploits of a quiet young man who excels in an odd, knee-racking sport.

There are times when any Olympics starts to look like a conspiracy of money, politics, and fate against the hopes and dreams of a few plucky athletes. Money and politics have dead-eyed armies at their disposal and they never stop bringing in reinforcements. It is still a very bad idea to bet against the athletes.

The tone for it all, ill and good, was set at those opening ceremonies at B.C. Place. The three-hour spectacle kicked off saloon arguments across the country, and beyond. “Show in shock” was the online headline in Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine. “The fatal accident of a Georgian luger shattered the mood,” the story read. “Many athletes experienced the opening in Vancouver in shock.” And an NPR writer, in an otherwise generous review, noted that, “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…”

At times the show was opaque in its symbolism or skewed in its emphases. It seemed to unite Canadians in a desire to point out what the show left out—our cities, our immigrant diversity, everybody had their own list. But its best moments outnumbered the rest, and taken altogether it offered a fresh new perspective on cultural myths that had earlier seemed too encrusted in cliché to be much good to anyone.
It was the work of outsiders, two Australian pop impresarios named David Atkins and Ignatius Jones. They designed the opening and closing ceremonies at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Since then they have peddled their wares from town to town like Harold Hill in The Music Man. The VANOC organizers, unsure a Canadian could do the job the way it needed doing, turned to these two.

Team CanadaOn the morning after the opening ceremonies, bright-eyed and talkative on three hours’ sleep, Atkins knew much of his work still lay ahead. A tiny, wiry man in a bomber jacket and fedora, Atkins still needed to execute every day’s medal ceremony and its attendant follow-up concert at B.C. Place and in Whistler. And early every morning throughout the Games, Atkins and his technical crews would be spending hours rehearsing the closing ceremonies scheduled for Feb. 28. A longer, bigger, looser affair than the tightly choreographed opening show, Atkins promised, with more celebrities.

Speaking to Maclean’s, Atkins was unapologetic about bringing an outsider’s perspective to Canada’s moment in the spotlight. He was able to examine Canada’s cultural inventory with fresh eyes, he said. “There are certain icons that are icons because they’re important and they have great significance. The fiddle was one. The drum was another. And the Rockies are another. There are certain things that exist in the culture of the country for a good reason. It’s more about how you interpret them and how you convey them than whether or not you include them.”

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, Jones’s show displayed something few CanCult events have managed to show: rhythm. A pulse. Atkins and Jones and the rest of their multinational creative team showed a willingness to speed through the stuff that didn’t need time. They dispatched the vice-regal salute to Michaëlle Jean in record time. An RCMP honour guard marched the Maple Leaf into the stadium double-time. But Atkins and Jones also chose to linger over other moments. They gave the 16-year-old chanteuse Nikki Yanofsky a splendidly languid O Canada to sing.

(The next day, Atkins was unmoved by word that some spectators thought it was a weird, diva-ish O Canada. “We could have done the anthem the way it’d be done at a hockey game. I just don’t know what that would have said about Canada in terms of distinguishing it, and using that moment to theatricalize the anthem.”)

Then came the arrival of the Aboriginal “hosts” from four southern B.C. First Nations and the appearance of four towering, translucent Salish welcome poles. Atkins knew some spectators would write this off as political correctness. He was unconcerned. “The best contemporary Aboriginal artists are taking the essence of their artwork and finding new media in which to bring it to a new audience. That’s what we tried to do as well.”

For the parade of athletes, little could be done. There were a lot of athletes. They paraded. The music was off-the-rack CTV Theme Song Peppy. The athletes looked beautiful, perhaps none more than South Korean bobsledder Kwang-Bae Kang, who beamed so broadly and waved his country’s flag so vigorously he seemed to brim over with the hope of the evening. When Canada’s team arrived, the applause was thunderous. Our heroes looked like home in their not-too-flashy red parkas and mittens. The theme-song music gave way to carnal, almost furious drumming while the team rounded the track. The only thing anywhere in sport that could have matched it for lusty foreboding is the haka, the Maori war chant the New Zealand rugby team uses to intimidate its foes. Here for the first time at these Games, but not for the last, a lusty eagerness to show some game face skated up to the edge of something dark and unnerving.

Bryan Adams and Nelly FurtadoNelly Furtado and Bryan Adams came out to perpetuate the amiable fiction that Canadians look fantastic and (in the case of Adams) never age. They sang a new Adams tune with about six words in the lyric, and then the huge white stage darkened and seemed to chill. Fabric facsimiles of the northern lights descended from the ceiling; a huge, luminous Stay-Puft Marshmallow Bear appeared, jetted itself briefly into the air like Paul Stanley from Kiss, and then sank beneath the—what? Waves? Computer-animated projections of Haida whales swam across the field and up in the fabric sky. The Alberta Ballet danced to a song by Sarah McLachlan. Ashley MacIsaac led an army of demonic fiddlers and dancers in a field of oversized maple leaves. Then Atkins and Jones conjured up something simpler and more magical from unlikely material: 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 one of two moments when Atkins and Jones replaced bluster with trust in the power of one strong voice. The second came when k.d. lang stood barefoot on top of a big gay-wedding cake, singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Last week, lang told Maclean’s she wouldn’t mind enforcing a moratorium on performances of Hallelujah. Apparently that had till Saturday, at the earliest, to begin, and I for one wouldn’t mind if it never did. Here, too, the Twitterverse grumbled a little that the song is overdone, but this is what it sounds like when a song is entering the Western canon, which this one surely is. Perhaps it took outsiders to give this song, sung by this woman, the unabashed adoration it has earned.

Wayne GretzkyEnough torchbearers to fill a minivan came out to light the cauldron, and hydraulics failed to deliver enough cauldron bits up from beneath the floor to give everyone something to light. When the stakes are this high, the gremlins always manage to get their paws on a piece of the action. But the Games were begun, and at last the athletes had their chance to grab the spotlight away from all the distractions. That clear shot is all they have ever needed. The rest of this festival would be theirs.