Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dateline: Vancouver--Opening Ceremonies

This is my 9th Winter Olympics, and my 15th including the Summer Games, and while it's possible I'll be in London in 2012, let's operate under the assumption that this will be my last one. It's the one sporting event I've always loved to cover, the one that seems most to matter, the one that resonates in the larger scheme of human affairs. I think the Olympics really do make a difference in the way people of different cultures and nationalities view one another.
So I'm going to try to write about this one on Swift Kicks as often as possible. We'll see how that works out. I also will be writing for and Sports Illustrated, the (shrinking) magazine. Here, for example, is something on figure skating that I sent in this morning: Judging Controversy
But the stuff that makes the Games the Games, the funny, human, non-sports page stuff, I'll try to save for here, to give you a feel of what these 17 days in Vancouver are like for me.
I suspect they're going to be wet. Television is going to try to ignore the weather here in the city, but it's rained every day (4) I've been here so far, and it's expected to rain another 3 inches this weekend. In Whistler, where the skiing will be held, that will probably be snow and look wonderful. But here in Vancouver, 6 feet above sea level, snow is a distant memory. Walking to the press center from my hotel this morning, I noticed blossoms breaking out on a Japanese magnolia tree. On Feb. 13. I'd have taken pictures of it, but my camera was in my backpack and it was raining. So you'll have to take my word for it. That tree knows something the local organizing committee hid from the IOC. Spring comes in February in Vancouver.
It was out of concern for the rain that, for the first time in Olympic history, Opening Ceremonies were held indoors. It was in a huge, domed stadium that had been built in the hopes of luring a pro football team to come to Vancouver, and the floor of the immense stadium had been covered with an inch of white, shredded crepe paper in an effort, mostly successful, to replicate snow. Here's a shot of it falling from the top of the dome:
I hope it looked good on television, because in person it was kind of like being on a movie set, so different from, say, Lillehammer in 1994, when it snowed the lightest, finest powder imaginable during Opening Ceremonies and turned the Games into a visual wonderland that was capped the final night by an appearance of the Northern Lights, the likes of which I had ever seen. Vancouver tried to replicate the Northern Lights indoors last night, and it was actually quite compelling, replete with the hologram of a giant polar bear:

The marching in always takes too long, and this year was no exception, what with all those great Winter Olympic powers like Bermuda, Jamaica, Morocco and the Cayman Islands clogging up the works. Each has one or two athletes who probably live there to avoid paying taxes, one or two officials who get a free trip to the host city and lots of parties to attend, and about 50 yards of open space in front and behind them as they march. I think there should be a rule that any country that has no measurable snowfall during a given quadrennium should be ineligible for the Winter Games. Let the Games begin, and the marching end.
Anyway, the host country always comes in last, and here's a picture of Canada marching in past the phallic totem poles:
We all stood as they did so, beating the drums they'd given us in our little kit that included flashlights, a poncho, and a Canadian flag. The only other nation that got a standing ovation was Georgia, out of respect for the 21-year-old luger who, earlier in the day, had died in a training run.

It was, on balance, a very imaginative, colorful, and long Opening Ceremonies, the low point being the street-corner-caliber poet who stood high on a stanchion and beat his Canadian breast, trying to capture a nation's psyche in free verse while wearing a beret and an Amish beard. He managed, against all odds, to unite this huge, diverse country: by the time he had finished, not one person in Canada identified with him.
I was obligingly wearing my baby blue poncho from my kit, which was hot, and after four-plus hours in my seat, they still hadn't managed to produce the torch. I ran out of gas. So after KD Lang's beautiful rendition of "Hallelujah", I left. I knew it was Gretzky who would be lighting the torch, and was sorry to miss him (when he was sixteen, he was my first assigned story for Sports Illustrated, and during the course of his record-shattering career, I wrote about him often) but I also knew I could tune in later and watch the replay. I headed out into the rain.
The roads, unexpectedly, were blocked off as I walked down Georgia St., back toward the press center. After a few minutes of spashing through puddles while getting my bearings, I heard sirens behind me and was aware of people scrambling to the side of the road. I looked back, and there was Gretzky, standing in an open car, carrying the torch, en route to the huge Olympic cauldron downtown, which he would light. About a thousand excited, inebriated Canadian youths were pursuing his vehicle on foot. I managed to get this snapshot as he rode past. I know it's lousy, but, hey, it was raining and it was a snapshot. But trust me, it's Gretzky on the way to lighting the Olympic torch:

Very cool moment. They'll be more, and I'll try to share them.

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