From sobering to exhilarating ...

February, 13, 2010
02/13/10
2:06
AM ET

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Despite the best efforts of the Vancouver Olympic Committee, I was not in a celebratory mood as the opening ceremonies approached. The death of the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili earlier in the day transformed high energy into somber paralysis.

The result was a day of feeling completely ripped in half, watching the cheery, face-painted true believers while simultaneously consumed by the thought of dying.

Canadian television -- which replayed the grisly crash at least three times in its entirety before Kumaritashvili was pronounced dead -- did not help matters, but turning one's head would not have changed anything.

The evening was surreal and painful, the death of Kumaritashvili never far from each image, each set piece designed for celebration, fun and enjoyment. It was a question of spirit, I suppose, and inside the land of make-believe came the resolution at the least to try to observe the ostentatious proceedings with two sets of eyes: one conflicted and one in admiration of what it takes for Olympians to be here in the first place.

And there was a third, too: Pay attention to whatever was happening, which is, after all, the job:

• There was fun, especially when you break down the Big Production. On each seat, there was an octagonal box that resembled your Aunt Millie's hatbox. The kit contained all the necessary components for a super-colossal light show:

-- One white poncho, so the audience in each section would be wearing the same color.

-- One battery-powered flashlight.

-- One drumstick; the said hatbox was actually to be used as a drum!

-- One nite-glow light stick.

-- And one Canadian flag.

Each of the kits -- called Audience Participation Kits -- were strategically located for the purpose of creating various special effects from each section of the arena, and came with an admonishing sticker, like this one from Section 211, Row H, Seat 1:

"This Audience Participation Kit is designed for this seat and this seat only. Please do not trade contents with your neighbors. Please do not move this kit to any other seat in the stadium."

• And there was more fun: The Parade of Nations portion of the opening ceremonies looked like part-military rally, part-"Project Runway." The Bermuda team -- surprise! -- wore Bermuda shorts. The Dutch glided smoothly in their customary orange. The Czech Republic appeared to be wearing pajama bottoms.

(Immediately following the French team, Georgia entered the stadium, and my heart sank. Wearing black armbands, the Georgian delegation were in obvious grief as they walked solemnly around this ring of fun and games, and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. The contingent bravely held it together, and the audience responded with a standing ovation. It was the human thing to do.)

• Neil Young, Neil Young, Neil Young! I was waiting for Neil Young. If he could sing the final, heartbreaking ballad in the movie "Philadelphia," he surely could have been here tonight. He is, after all, Canadian. But Sarah McLachlan sang well.

While I pined for Neil, a reader wrote on ESPN.com, "We NEED Leonard Cohen." And we got him, in the form of k.d. lang, who sang "Hallelujah" immediately after the acknowledgement of Kumaritashvili's passing. Anyone who wasn't close to crying, well, is heartless. Modern technology allowed one piece of the night to stay with me. I immediately bought "Hallelujah" and downloaded it onto my iPod touch.

• The lighting of the torch took awhile, but it was worth it, despite lulls in the program. Canada was well-represented. Betty Fox took part in carrying the Olympic flag into BC Place, which disqualified her from the lighting pool.

I had been wondering throughout the afternoon where some heroes of particular interest to me would be. It had been a given Wayne Gretzky would receive the honor. It was only fitting. The Canadian hockey team must win the gold medal. Gretzky is the greatest name in the game.

I walked around the city thinking about Gordie Howe, Maurice "Rocket" Richard and, of course, Bobby Orr, hoping there would be a place for the old Bruin who symbolized youth and possibility better than any athlete in Boston history.

Luckily, Orr was not forgotten. Along with Fox and the actor Donald Sutherland -- who, while being tremendous in many films, was great as a surprise cameo in the 1985 Kate Bush music video "Cloudbusting" -- Orr helped carry in the Olympic flag.

• Forty-five thousand kilometers later, the torch finally appeared in the stadium, carried by the activist Rick Hansen. Hansen passed off to Catriona Le May Doan, who then dished to Steve Nash (it should have been Orr!), who delivered to Nancy Greene, who finally handed off to The Great One.

• The great pyrotechnics show concluded with -- gasp! -- a wardrobe malfunction. Four beams were supposed to surround the Olympic flame. The entire contraption looked like the Fortress of Solitude, Superman's North Pole replica of Krypton ("A sentimental replica of a planet long since vanished. No style at all." -- General Zod), but only three emerged from the floor. I did not hold it against the evening, however.

Hey, this was my first Olympics. It was sad, sobering and exhilarating all in one, which, unfortunately, is pretty much what life is.

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