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Show of emotions

Feelings are on display as Games declared open

By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Seven years ago when this lovely city between sea and sky won the right to stage the XXIst Winter Games, there was no way for the jubilant organizers to know how challenging the road to Olympus would be.

There was an unprecedented building boom that made construction more complicated and expensive. A global economy that suddenly tanked last year. The warmest January on record. And yesterday, just a few hours before the opening ceremonies inside BC Place, the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a terrifying crash on the Whistler track.

So when the Games began here last night with a quartet of northern stars (hockey player Wayne Gretzky, basketball player Steve Nash, skier Nancy Greene, and speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan) jointly igniting the cauldron after Bobby Orr had helped carry in the Olympic flag - there was a complex swirl of emotions. Satisfaction and sadness, exuberance and anxiety, pride and relief.

For the first time in 22 years the snow-and-ice Olympics have returned to the world’s second-largest country and the organizers were hoping that the next 16 days would bring together not only the world but also a nation that too rarely finds something that its people can concelebrate.

“We don’t wake up in the morning wondering what’s going on in Quebec or Ontario or Manitoba,’’ said John Furlong, the Irish émigré who heads the organizing committee. “Our idea was to bring the country here.’’

The concept was to host “Canada’s Games’’ and Vancouver, which has one of the country’s most eclectic populations, is an ideal place to show off the exceptional ethnic diversity of a nation that still has a substantial aboriginal population and is one of the planet’s most welcoming for immigrants. So it was telling that the Olympics were formally declared open by governor general Michaelle Jean, a Haitian refugee who came here in 1968 to escape the brutality of the Duvalier regime that had tortured her father.

The organizers were hoping to have everyone from St. John to Squamish display “glowing hearts’’ both for their country and for the Games, which is why they staged the longest domestic torch relay in history, covering 45,000 kilometers and taking 106 days to pass through more than 1,000 communities in every province and territory. “The spirit and soul of all 33 million Canadians has been sewn into the fabric of these Winter Games,’’ Furlong declared.

Both Canada and the Games have changed much since they were held in Calgary in 1988. There were only 57 countries competing then with 1,425 participants, 10 sports, and 46 medal events. There still was a Soviet Union, a German Democratic Republic, a Yugoslavia.

This time 82 countries marched in the parade, many of which have been reborn as distinct states since 1988, like Estonia, Slovenia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovakia, and Georgia, whose athletes decided to march in the ceremonies and compete to honor their fallen teammate. There will be more than 2,600 skiers, skaters, and sliders in these Games competing in 86 events in 15 sports.

What the hosts are hoping is that at least one of those gold medals will be claimed by someone wearing a red maple leaf, possibly freestyle skier Jennifer Heil, who is favored to win tonight. Canada is the only nation to have staged both the Winter and Summer Games without winning a gold, but their officials, athletes, and coaches had vowed to “Own The Podium’’ this time.

That would help the citizenry feel that the $1.75 billion budget - not counting construction and security - was worth the investment at a time when Canadians, like their American neighbors, are feeling the chilling effects of the worst recession since the Depression. Recent polls indicated they had mixed feelings, at best, about devoting so much cash to a winter carnival and several thousand protestors clashed with police outside the stadium last night.

Like most of the world’s major cities, Vancouver has its share of urban problems and most of them are visible in the Downtown Eastside neighborhood only a few blocks from BC Place - homelessness, crime, drug addiction, prostitution. But the city, which offers the most spectacular setting in Winter Games history, has been doing its best to show a clean and friendly face to three billion televiewers and to thousands of overdressed visitors who weren’t quite prepared for the springlike conditions that have been both delightful and detrimental.

Even up in Whistler, a two-hour drive north where the altitude usually guarantees cold and snow, there have been fog and rain and warm temperatures. In Vancouver, there hasn’t been a flake for weeks and volunteers were jokingly asking American visitors if they’d brought any snow with them. The only white stuff hereabouts has been petals falling from the cherry trees, which usually don’t bloom until March.

The weather has been mild enough that the opening ceremonies could comfortably have been held outdoors, as all of them have been since the first Winter Games in 1924. These are the first to be staged under a roof, which allowed the Bermudans to stroll in wearing shorts. The organizers still managed to make BC Place into a winter wonderland with artificial snow and ice sculptures and spectators draped in white ponchos, who greeted Team Canada with a torrid roar that would have melted the downhill slopes.

For the next fortnight Vancouver wants to bring together not just the country but the world in peaceful play. It has been more of an effort than the organizers could have imagined in 2003, when their city edged the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang for the right and the responsibility to stage Games that have grown only bigger, more expensive, and more controversial over the last two decades. Now they have 16 days to savor a most unique sleigh ride with Ethiopians, Nepalese, Chileans, New Zealanders, and Albanians all invited.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.