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Taking part in the opening ceremony

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Ollie Williams | 07:37 UK time, Saturday, 13 February 2010

You didn't have to be an athlete to take part in the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games.

Organisers brought a giant polar bear to life and made steam spout from whales which crossed the BC Place arena floor, while ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky helped the Olympic flame to its new home, a flickering maple leaf burning with the ambition of an expectant Canadian nation.

But the 60,000 fans inside the arena waving miniature Canadian flags did not have to sit on their hands and watch the three-hour spectacle unfold.

They - and I - became our own sound and light show, integral to the pictures beamed around the world as a long, tragic day in Olympic history ended on a resilient note.

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Setting off for the ceremony just hours after the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training crash, I found it hard to imagine how I could enjoy any celebration, even the launch of an Olympic Games.

And there were regular reminders throughout the evening that what is so often called the Olympic family is mourning a loss.

As a minute's silence in Kumaritashvili's honour fell over the crowd, a tiny row of lights gleamed among the seated Olympic athletes.

Then, one by one, fans around the stadium lit their own electronic lights - provided by organisers to help create dazzling effects all night - as a show of support.

It was an impromptu show of unity, respect and fraternity which no hastily-organised tribute could have matched.

And it came from a crowd whose enthusiasm for the Winter Games remained undimmed despite the horrible events at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

The buzz on the way into the arena had to be seen to be believed. It felt like one long street party as we wound through the heaving city centre, then fought like Canadian salmon heading upstream as thousands of ticket-holders bustled past in search of the right entrance.

Once finally inside, we found we had arrived in time for the "pre-show", which turned out to be a mass training session ahead of one of the most innovative ceremonies on this scale to ever have been staged.

Each member of the crowd had been handed an octagonal cardboard container - a pizza box, to you and me - inside which were a selection of goodies.

(At this point it has to be said I only got my hands on one since at least a hundred Olympic delegates failed to take their seats in front of our camera position. Which, frankly, is an appalling waste when you see the fun other families were having with their night.)

The kit for each audience member contained:

Drum beater to be used on the box itself. Take the beater out, close the lid, and you have a tom-tom with which to sound your approval.

Torch with a translucent sticker over the bulb to change the colour. Used to illuminate the stadium and create a "Northern Lights" effect.

Electronic candle to be waved in the air in imitation of "fan leaders", volunteers charged with coordinating the movements of the crowd.

White cape to enhance the effectiveness of the arena lights and transform the crowd in to the background of the ceremony.

Fans at the opening ceremony, and yours trulyFans (left) and yours truly (right) don their capes and prepare to welcome the Games. Photos: AP/BBC

When put together and wielded by tens of thousands of Olympic fanatics, these four articles created an interactive experience that rewarded the faith Canadians have shown in their home Games.

"I was expecting it to be completely lame," said Catherine Monk, a Vancouver resident sat next to me at the ceremony. "But it wasn't anywhere near as lame as I was imagining.

"I thought the flashlights were highly effective. The participatory element worked and I love any ceremony that lets you use a drum - it allows everybody to engage."

Rob Walker, from New Brunswick on Canada's east coast, told me he had even more reason than most to stay gripped by proceedings.

"My girlfriend is one of the fiddlers who actually performed on the stage, and from the moment she woke up today she's been extremely excited," he said.

"It was everything I expected it would be, and I sat through some of the rehearsals as well. It's a dream come true for her and it will be incredibly hard to top this.

"The box we were given was fantastic, it added a little bit of excitement for those of us in the crowd and helped pass the time during some of the slower parts."

And I'd be taking you for a fool if I told you the ceremony was a relentless adrenaline rush. Everybody knows an Olympic opening ceremony is going to mean a procession of thousands of athletes, and the initially-vibrant communal drumming of the crowd had slowed to a polite patter by the time Liechtenstein made their entrance, let alone Uzbekistan.

But the highs of this extravaganza dramatically outweighed and outshone the lows.

Mesmeric light shows put on by members of the crowd themselves, technical innovations that let participants dance with heels of fire while polar bears erupt from the floor, all manner of wire acrobatics as people descended from the ceiling, and a sense of style, history and privilege made this a ceremony of which Canadians should be, and are, proud.

Gretzky, the living embodiment of Canadian passion for ice hockey and a man at the front of the queue to see them win hockey gold here, was the last man to light his torch as the Olympic flame finally ended its journey.

But just as that cauldron now burns bright in downtown Vancouver, so all of us at the Games keep a candle burning for Nodar Kumaritashvili.

"Carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders," said chief Vancouver organiser John Furlong as the Games were declared open. The dreams of thousands of athletes and millions of Canadians can now be realised in earnest.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good blog Ollie, nice to get a feel of what's happening over there.
    I like the idea of welcome packs and getting the crowd involved in the opening ceremony. Maybe our 2012 team could do something similar.
    Very sad loss with the accident yesterday, be interesting to see how the athletes handle the event now that it has been given the go ahead. I would be bricking it having to go down that course, but I haven't got the PMA of an olympian. Have they at least padded up those pillars in the final corner?
    Anyway, the Olympics shouldn't be hiding in the shadow of this accident and is about so much more, so moving on, it looks like it's going to be fantastic and we have some good hopes of upping our medal count.
    I'm envious of your job! Enjoy it mate and keep us updated, I'll be watching as much as I can.

  • Comment number 2.

    I stayed up and watched the opening ceremony. In many ways I prefered it to the more gradiose, self indulgent Beijing ceremony. I loved the video floor and projection technology - something I hope London can take to the next level. This felt as if it was a lot more intimate and engaging than in Beijing which was beautiful but a bit pompous at times. I also felt this ceremony flowed together very nicely. It was a bit like watching a film...a format I think these types of events will have to follow in the future. The only thing that fell a bit flat for me was the lighting of the torch - it just missed that wow!
    Great coverage by the way BBC!

  • Comment number 3.

    Well done on the coverage of the games. I'm a Vancouver ex-pat in Cambridge and watched the opening ceremonies on BBC. Its great to see what the international media thinks of the city and the people.

    The glitch with the lighting at the end of the ceremony was yikes, almost didn't happen.

    Do you know if BBC will be showing any of the men's hockey games?

    Enjoy Vancouver, the diversity, the food, and perhaps a little bit of rain.

  • Comment number 4.

    I stayed up to watch the opening ceremony and it was so worth it. What made it so incredible was that the Canadians made the concept of the show was simple and efective without too many performers. The floor projections and lighting were out of this world. The Canadians did such a great job of promoting their nation to the world. It was as if we got a real taste of Canada and everything that made it wonderful.
    My only hope is that London pulls out something miraculous out of the hat to not only follow, but match what Vancouver have done.
    As much as it was a celebration of Canada, it was sad to hear about the tragic death of the young Georgeian athlete. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, collegues and the whole of the Georgian team at this time.
    It would be wonderful if anyone of the Georgian team win something in his honour. It shows even during difficult times that the human spirit never gives up for anyone who who has fallen.

  • Comment number 5.

    "real taste of Canada," a taste so bland, so fabricated without substance that one questions if one is actually chewing. The games are a prodigal waste in a metropolitan area that needs to become more fiscally responsible and invest in finally bringing it's transportation infrastructure and economy up to the standards found 2.5 hours south in Seattle.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hey there, originally from Bournemouth , i have lived in Vancouver for 15 years, also known as the city of no fun as many events have been canceled or shut down , over the years , usually due to the yahoos. I watched the opening ceremony in a pub downtown and i have to say how proud i was, people stood & applauded the smaller nations with only 1 or 2 members,when Canada appeared it kicked off, not surprising you might say, but you have to understand how reserved Canadians usually are,[except for anything to do with hockey] after, the streets were buzzing, felt like London on a Saturday night,i believe we have finally got the olympic bug. Having said all this , its also been a terrible time with the devastating death of the Georgian athlete , during the ceremony when they held the minuet of silence, it was hard to hear what was happening , being in a noisy pub, but suddenly over a period of 20 seconds the whole place became silent out of respect, it was one of those times you tend not to forget. Our thoughts , prayers & hearts go out to the family, friends & team members of Nodar Kumaritashvili. Great blog Ollie ,keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 7.

    Vancity, I've previously seen Hockey games during teh Winter Olympics on the Red Button, you probably want to check out the Interactive schedules for coverage.

  • Comment number 8.

    first: great ceremony for a great city. looking forward to a good Olympics that continues to showcase a very worthwile destination.


    re: spectacularsteve

    as a proud but realistic resident of Seattle, I can only ask, "what are you talking about?!?" exactly what transportation infrastructure are you talking about? the mile long monorail that goes nowhere and catches on fire every other year? our 1/2 mile street tram "network?" our light rail, which we just got and that has a nasty habit of running over homeless guys in SoDO? the viaduct that is near collapse over which there is an ongoing debate to build the nation's most expensive deep bore tunnel with cost overruns going to us dazzling Seattlites? the crumbling seawall? the "temporary" braces still on the Magnolia Bridge 10 years after the Nisqually quake? Kids getting assaulted in our transit tunnel without security interfering?

    What I would give for SkyTrain!

    I would go into the debacle of last year's snow storm, but there isn't enough space.

    If that is proper infrastructure and fiscal responsibility than I will go on craigslist and gladly barter my Seattle residency in kind with any Vancouverite who wants it.

  • Comment number 9.

    Nice to hear a option of someone at the Winter Olympics

  • Comment number 10.

    First, my thoughts are with the Georgian team, friends and family of 21 year old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili killed yesterday. What a tragic loss. I too thought this might damper the opening ceremonies but the Canadians handled it with dignity. The one minute silence gave me a lump in my throat. There was not a sound. The silence was deafening. KD Lang singing Hallelujah seemed poignant and was beautifully executed. Her voice is simply amazing.

    Secondly, gassius_clay #8, you made me laugh out loud mate! Honestly is always the best policy.

    Good luck to all athletics. They have worked hard to get to where they are.

  • Comment number 11.

    Games potentially looking good, despite the weather. Opening Ceremony not bad, although I think the woman singing the Canadian National Anthem could have learned to mime a bit better... One complaint about the BBC coverage, though. Just why is it that some people cannot forgive 'Eddie the Eagle' Edwards for being popular ? The snobbery is astounding, & a bit too 'hockey sticks' for me. Hazel Irvine's description (during the Opening Ceremony coverage) of Eddie as "anti-hero" of the Calgary Games was shameful. People forget that Eddie was a passable downhill skier, before he saw a way in to the GB team by changing to ski-jumping. Regardless of his position at the back of the field in both his events, he showed bravery, effort, & spirit, AND he still holds the GB record ! Canadians still love him 22 years on, & he's recognised at any ski event in the world. Give it a rest BBC commentators !!

  • Comment number 12.

    The ceremony was excellent. I only came across it through some channel hopping on Spanish TV! I´m not a fan of winter sports, but things like this give me the motivation to book a skiing holiday in the sierra nevada nonetheless!

    Enjoy your time out their!

  • Comment number 13.

    I have to agree with EssEss. As a resident of Calgary I know that Eddie is regarded as one of the icons of the 88 Calgary Olympics along with the Jamaican Bobsled Team. He was a guest of honour for the 20th anniversary celbrations and is a local hero. At the closing ceremony, the president of the Organising Committee, Frank King, said: "At this Games, some competitors have won gold, some have broken records, and some of you have even soared like an eagle." At that moment, 100,000 people in the stadium roared "Eddie! Eddie!". It was the first time in the history of the games that an individual athlete had been mentioned in the closing speech.

    "Anti-Hero - a protagonist who lacks the attributes that make a heroic figure, as nobility of mind and spirit, a life or attitude marked by action or purpose, and the like.

    That doesn't sound like an accurate description of Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards to me.

  • Comment number 14.

    Great Blog Ollie - nice to read comments from someone who was actually there. I'm fed up with some media being so negative - Last week the BBC news even managed to wheel out an elderly resident of Vancouver who was having to wait a bit longer for her hip operation because of the Olympics! Hold the front page!!
    I watched the opening ceremony and was transfixed. Especially the bit about defining a Canadian by the words 'please' and 'thankyou'. That's precisely my experience of several trips to Vancouver. Go Canada!! - (especially in events where GB is not participating!)

  • Comment number 15.

    As a frequent visitor to Vancouver I found the opening ceremony awesome. It was everything I hoped it would be but was surprised with the effort to represent all of Canada and this brought back so many good memories of my drive from BC to Newfoundland in 2008. Will the 2012 games just focus on London

    i have no idea what juanpablo is talking about with regard to transport networks. Vanocuver has the best network I have ever been in, with the link between the Sky Train, sea bus and bus system all working from the same ticket being superb

  • Comment number 16.

    Hi Oll
    Glad to see that the BBC standard issue uniform for the Opening Ceremony is so stylish as in the picture.
    Best regards

  • Comment number 17.

    I saw the 'highlights' prog on Saturday lunchtime. Some good things. will wait till I watch the recording of the full ceremony before passing judgement.

    BUT why did Sue B and Matthew P mention some 'highlights' of the ceremony that wern't actually shown in the programme??


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