Believe: A Somewhat Kinky Twist to the XXIst Winter Olympiad

There are some moments that are destined to be forever frozen in time – and enshrined in a special place of remembrance within our own minds. How apropos then, that a few of those frozen moments came courtesy of the Opening Ceremonies for the Games of the XXI-st Winter Olympiad, currently (and finally some would say) underway in the glimmering, emerald city that is, without question, the jewel in the Canadian crown.

There were the usual protests that dogged both a torch relay, coast to coast and throughout a vast country. The protestors continued their demonstrations, outside B.C. Place Stadium and relatively peacefully, during the opening of the Games themselves. The death in October of the man who spearheaded the city of Vancouver’s bid to host these Winter Games and was destined to never see his dream come to fruition with his own eyes (Jack Poole) was a crisis that, perhaps, lesser Organizing Committees may not have fully recovered from. The already somewhat subdued atmosphere surrounding these games was further driven into a very nearly funereal state when word came of the sudden death (training accident) of a Georgian slider named Nodar Kumaritashvili literally hours before he was to march with his team in the Parade of Nations during the Opening Ceremonies. The omens for Vancouver looked exceedingly grim, indeed.

If you will perhaps allow Your Humble Narrator, namely me, a momentary indulgence or two, Dear Reader, before we continue on to the main point of this missive … There are moments when one cannot help but feel a surge of nationalistic pride. In my own past, I’ve had two moments that stand out as signature memories that I associate with immediate and undeniable emotion that relates directly to how I feel about our people – Canadians – as a Nation. The first involved the groundswell of support, from coast to coast, for the Toronto Blue Jays baseball club when they won the World Series, back to back, in 1992 and 1993. Every city and town in the Great White North turned shades of blue for two straight Octobers – and the unifying aspect the Blue Jays brought to our nation cannot be understated. The second involved a single, seemingly unimportant ice hockey game in Calgary (I was there), between the New York Rangers and the Calgary Flames. It was known that the Rangers, featuring Number 99 himself, the immortal Wayne Gretzky, were not scheduled to play in Calgary the following year (1999), and the speculation was running rampant that The Great One was going to call it a career following this current season (1998) or the next. This is important to note: it was not lost on a single soul that what the Calgary crowd was witnessing could (and did, in fact turn out to be) Wayne Gretzky’s last hockey game in Calgary.

I will never, ever forget this … In a building that for nearly two decades was by far the most brutal and unpleasant place, fan-wise, for Mr. Gretzky to have to play in (he was a member of the hated rival Edmonton Oilers, remember, for years), when he made his final appearance on the ice with less than a minute to go in the game … nearly 20,000 people stood up, en mass, and roared their thanks. For ten straight minutes the man the city of Calgary loved to hate … was at last, a true hero, a national hero, and they saluted and cheered him loudly and endlessly. They cheered him mainly for what he had accomplished as a Canadian – not as just an ice hockey player. I have never felt more pride at being born Canadian than in those moments.

That was, until last night. We’ll talk a tiny bit more about Mr. Gretzky a little later.

Last night, however, topped both of those cherished memories. What unfolded before our eyes was a story of what it is to be Canadian. The myriad of exceptional performers somehow, miraculously, managed to make those in attendance (and the massive television viewing audience) overcome the moroseness that permeated the start of this special night. By the end of the performances, it didn’t even really matter that a major mechanical malfunction during the ceremony’s final moments brought proceedings to an awkward and somewhat uncomfortable standstill for about five minutes. The tragedy of the immediate past had given way to a euphoric feeling … of accomplishment. We believe these Winter Games are going to be the most memorable – the best – in history.

Yes, even the “wilder” side of Canadians got into the mix a little. During a coast-to-coast tribute to Canada’s various and culturally varied regions, a contingent of mohawked, kilted, leather corseted and combat booted and high  energy fiddlers invaded the stage for an unbelievably uplifting, raucous musical tribute to Canada’s Maritime provinces. Most of the women who joined the “wildmen” were adorned in some fashion of extremely well detailed leather gauntlets that marched their rakish leather corset-tops. This, following an amazing performance by a single artist suspended above the Stadium floor in a glowing blue canoe; covered in furs, head to toe and with a hairstyle that would put the best Viking horns to shame. The “Viking” in the blue canoe proceeded to have a fiddling contest – with his shadow being cast against an enormous Harvest Moon. At first, the audience is led to believe the shadow on the moon is indeed just that – until the shadow starts going off and playing, dancing in it’s own direction (but all in perfect syncopation and harmony with his “live” counterpart in the blue canoe).

But shadow play contests and Maritime punk-rock fiddlers (some that would put the infamous Ashley MacIsaac to shame) aside, there is something even more remarkable about these Opening Ceremonies; something that could be considered quite kinky and twisted, in its own way.

The people chosen to light the Olympic flame within the Stadium couldn’t have been chosen any better. Rick Hanson (the Man in Motion), Canadian skating legend Catriona Le May Doan, Canadian skiing legend Nancy Greene, Vancouver-born and raised NBA basketball superstar Steve Nash and, (in the supreme choice of all who believe what is “right” within the Canadian world) Wayne Gretzkycollectively did the honor of lighting the flame – despite the fact that a serious hydraulic malfunction prevented one of the four gigantic “ice crystals” from rising beneath, and tower above, the Stadium floor. It was left to Mr. Gretzky to venture out – completely unannounced – into the streets of Vancouver and carry the Olympic torch some 20 blocks from the stadium to the waterfront, where the “permanent” Olympic Cauldron had mysteriously appeared. Mr. Gretzky was taken to the outdoor Cauldron on the back of a Police Ford Tahoe pickup truck, and as word spread of the voyage, throngs of jubilant people ran alongside, each completely unaware they had just made a small entry for themselves into the history books with the “escorting” of the flame. There is no bigger symbol of our country than that embodied in the voice and stern countenance that belongs to Wayne Gretzky. The man has never failed to answer his country’s calling. He answered, in spades, this time as well. His lighting of the outdoor Cauldron was the perfect ending to a near-perfect – and Canadian – evening.

Bob Costas, the absolute best sportscaster in the world, in his NBC Broadcast last evening, seemed at first bemused – and then in awe – of a not-so-subtle change in attitude emanating from the Canadian hosts. He carefully and patiently, perfectly, informed the American viewing audience that the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games were designed to be Canada’s “debutante” party as a world power in the world of winter sports competition. Mr. Costas at times seemed to marvel at the “Hollywood feel” of the pageantry taking place before him: he certainly made a point of mentioning this kind of overt, “in your face” presentation was very unexpected from his cousins to the North. In the way that only the vocally perfect Mr. Costas could do, as the Cultural Pageant was winding down, he quipped: “”Some say the Canadian initiative of Own the Podium and winning the overall medal count represents a shift in Canadian attitude, to be so openly assertive and ambitious. Canadians as a group are among the most friendliest and most welcoming people on the earth. But I don’t see anything incompatible with saying hello, welcome, we’re very friendly, we’re glad that you’re here, we want you to enjoy yourselves …  and now we would also like to kick your butt!” 

That is the kinkiest, most twisted thing about the start of these Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver: We might be Canadian and we might still be the friendliest people on earth, but this time we have a swagger in our step and we have a true sense of National Identity that heretofore had only been recognized amongst the Americans. The Opening Ceremonies went from being a potential tragedy-filled “Grief-Fest” to the best “coming out party” our Nation could have asked for. It’s up to the athletes, now, to carry that new-found sense of national accomplishment forward, and make their countrymen and countrywomen proud.

Canadians? Calm, assertive, brash and expectant? Impossible, you say! That, my friends, is truly the kinkiest twist imaginable to the start of what appears to be a most amazing Olympiad. No more sadness, just let the real Games being!