O Canada: Vancouver Kicks Off the Winter Olympic Games in Style

With spectacle and a tribute to a fallen athlete, Friday's opening ceremony gets the games underway in a multicultural celebration

Hours before the start of the Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony at BC Place Stadium on Friday, news of a Georgian luge athlete’s death during a training session threatened to cast a pall over the evening. And 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili was clearly on the minds of Olympic organizers and athletes. Showing their solidarity, they gave a standing ovation to the Georgian delegation, who wore black armbands in their teammate's honor. Near the end of the evening, everyone in the packed stadium observed a minute of silence in his memory.

The tragedy didn't overshadow the colorful show (rumored to cost between $30-$40 million) that Vancouver's Olympic committee delivered. Different from the jaw-dropping coordination of thousands of participants moving in unison at the $300 million opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing, China, the ceremony was still visually stunning and wove in the many cultures spanning the nation of Canada.

First off, pro snowboarder Johnny Lyall, a Vancouver native, boarded in on a skate ramp, which kicked off Canadian aboriginal dance numbers and 16-year-old jazz-pop singer Nikki Yanofsky riffed her way through "O Canada." Then the parade of 2,600 athletes began their march through BC Place. While each one of the 82 participating countries took a turn to wave their flag, NBC commentators Matt Lauer and Bob Costas dispensed random trivia. How many of the 82 nations here have never won a Winter Games medal? That would be 38. Who’s the oldest athlete competing in the games? Mexican skier Hubertus Von Hohenlohe, who’s 51. And so on.

Surrounded by dancers in native aboriginal dress, Canadians Nelly Furtado (poured into a royal blue, off-the-shoulder dress), and Bryan Adams took center stage to sing Adams’ original tune for the Olympics: “One World, One Flame.” And then the elaborate, beautifully choreographed show began in earnest. An ode to the physical and cultural diversity of Canada, it unfolded in four parts, like a journey through time and space: Starting at the frozen North, it moved on to French-speaking Quebec, then the prairies and the Rockies, and finally ended in cosmopolitan Vancouver.

Along the way, the multi-faceted extravaganza included indoor snow and rain; an incredible light show using LED screens and over a hundred projectors; acrobats on harnesses; 3D illusions of ice morphing into water and fast-swimming orca whales into salmon; soaring totem poles transforming into huge, looming trees; and punk-rock tap dancers whose heels spit fire. The audience itself -- 60,000 people in white ponchos -- served as a canvas for the light show.

Other Canadian stars were woven into the ceremony: Donald Sutherland read quotes about his country by historic figures. Singer Sarah McLachlan performed her 2006 song "Ordinary Miracle" (from the Charlotte’s Web soundtrack) with a full orchestra and dozens of barefoot ballet dancers performing around her. In one segment, a fiddler suspended in a high-floating canoe dueled with his own shadow in the moon, paying tribute to Canada's great tradition of fiddle playing. An acrobat soared and flipped through the air to Canadian Joni Mitchell's song, "Both Sides Now"; a host of other acrobats simulated skiing and snowboarding down a mountain where Olympic Winter Games images were being projected. A "slam poet" performed spoken word, lending the proceedings an urban edge. And with a hush in the stadium, k.d. lang sang a soaring version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Eventually, after some speeches by Olympic organizers and a song by a Canadian opera singer, it was the moment everyone was waiting for. Who would be the final torch-bearer -- the one to light the Olympic cauldron?

A group of Canadians were given the honor: Rick Hansen, an eight-time medal-winning Paralympian; Catriona Lemay Doan, a three-time Olympic medal winner; Steve Nash, a Canadian basketball star and point guard for the Phoenix Suns; Nancy Greene, an Olympic ski champion, alpine skier and a current senator representing British Columbia; and finally, to no one's surprise, the hockey star, Wayne Gretzky.

There were a few anxious moments near the end of the evening, when the torch-bearers waited, and waited, for four columns to rise up, followed by the cauldron itself. Cameras caught Gretzky looking nervous, as if some cue or another had been missed. Filling the dead air, Costas guessed that a mechanical failure was holding things up. Eventually, three of the columns emerged, and Gretzky and his cohorts were able to light the cauldron. And without the on-air commentary tipping viewers off, most people watching at home would have just assumed they were stalling to build up suspense.

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What was your favorite moment from the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games? Chime in below!

For schedules and listings of the Olympic Winter Games, go to the official NBC site.

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