D'oh, Canada!

Punk-rock fiddlers, slam poetry and a big, broken torch: The Olympic opening ceremony color commentary

Published February 13, 2010 1:14PM (EST)

The Olympic flame burns during the opening ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 12, 2010.     REUTERS/Dylan Martinez (CANADA)  (Reuters)
The Olympic flame burns during the opening ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, February 12, 2010. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez (CANADA) (Reuters)

After the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, how would NBC handle the tone of its broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremony, on what would normally be a joyous, celebratory night?

We begin with a recap of the awful accident. "I'm sure everyone shares the thought that they really need to build up the protection barriers around those areas," said Duncan Kennedy, who's covering the luge for NBC Sports. "Again, this is completely uncharted territory with these speeds, and when the G forces take over, particularly with an inexperienced athlete -- it's hard enough for an experienced athlete to get out of trouble." 

Now we cut over to Al Michaels and Tom Brokaw sitting behind the huge Olympics desk. "Here we are on the day of the opening ceremony, and along comes the very sad and stunning news from Whistler earlier today," Michaels says to Brokaw.

"It was a very sobering moment, but as you know, these Olympic athletes in the winter games will tell you that so many of their events are inherently dangerous…. So there'll be a big pause, I think, for these athletes," Brokaw says.

 But there's no big pause for Brokaw, whose tone soon grows brighter. "But once the game begins, Al, knowing these competitors, they'll go about the business of competing with the best athletes in the world, and the rest of the world will have a chance to see the glories of this host country, Canada, and its very unique relationship with the United States."

Breathtaking, to go from tragedy to the glories of Canada, in a few seconds flat. No wonder they brought in a heavy-hitter like Brokaw for this one. Now we can forget about death and sit back and enjoy Brokaw's voice, taking us on a quick tour through the Great White North.

"Remember, Canada was a British colony. That was a long time ago." You don't say! "Our two nations have the largest trading relationship in the world." "Canada is a huge country." "In a fight, you want the Canadians on your side."

Suddenly I'm reminded of one of my favorite headlines from The Onion: "Perky 'Canada' Has Its Own Laws, Government." Sample line: "And they even export things, like Canadian Bacon, and ice!"

 Once our palates have been cleansed of morbid thoughts by Brokaw's giant valentine, it's time for the flashy intro to the Winter games that was probably previously slated for the top of the broadcast: Some dramatic photography paired with soaring music and a lot of melodramatic prose. "Here, where a swerving coastline submits to waves of glacial peaks, where the mapping of the Western world came to an end, the discovery yet begins anew!" Praise Jesus! Who writes this stuff?

"Which Olympic travelers are destined to know victory's rapture?" I was just wondering the same thing a few minutes ago.

We meet up with Bob Costas and Matt Lauer, who want us to know that the Chinese set the bar pretty high with their opening ceremony, but the Canadians are planning something a little more personal and intimate. Are they trying to manage our expectations?

Now here's the world premiere of the "We Are The World" video, to help the people of Haiti. Barbra Streisand wriggled her way into center stage again – that woman's power knows no bounds.

Finally, the opening ceremony begins. We're told that the ceremony is dedicated to  Kumaritashvili. There's a countdown, and… a giant video screen? What is this, the Astrodome?

 We’re treated to some aerial views of Vancouver – but we've been watching this footage of soaring peaks and city skylines for the past hour and a half now. Wait: Here's a snowboarder on top of an insane peak! He slides down across pristine snow while a voice reads out the years and locations of the Winter Olympics. It's a little distracting, actually, because all I want to do is watch this guy fly over snowy cliffs.

Next, he skis through a Canadian maple leaf. Oh, those plucky Canadians with their adorable little maple leaves! Finally, we learn it's snowboarder Johnny Lyall, who arrives in the stadium, flies down a ramp and welcomes everyone.

Dignitaries waving. Royal Canadian Mounties demonstrate their excellent posture. Time to sing "Oh Canada." This is a very long song. How are they getting that Canadian flag to wave inside the stadium?

 Tall ice statues, First Nations people arrive – and by the way, that is perhaps the most polite and respectful name for indigenous peoples ever invented.

Here come the nations of the globe, wearing ski suits, waving little flags, and carrying celebratory camcorders, presumably in case no one else is filming this. The delegation from Azerbaijan is wearing crazy-ass pants and furry hats. The athlete from Bermuda is wearing Bermuda shorts with dark knee socks, an excellent look. Here's Georgia, wearing black armbands and removing their hats, and they're met with a standing ovation.

Germans are wearing pink and yellow coats that say "TEAM" on the front. Italians look stylish in their gray coats. Here's the United States wearing dorky white pants, off-white sweaters and silly looking hats.

And here's Canada. "Canadians as a group are among the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth." How do you measure that statistically, Bob? But this time they want to kick our butts, Bob says. Yeah, I'm sure last time they wanted to politely surrender the gold to whomever might want it the most.

Next, Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams perform the lamest song since that thing they play at the end of the NCAA basketball tournament, "One Shining Moment": "This is your moment, your time to run like the wind!" I'm flashing back to Up With People. First Nations dancers are jumping up and down like the fraudience at a Miley Cyrus concert.

Now here comes a tribute to "the frigid North." It's snowing. Donald Sutherland is murmuring into a microphone somewhere. People in white are walking through the snow.

 "In effect, right now, we are sitting in a 60,000-seat snow globe," says Matt Lauer, "the kind you would have on a children's or a child's shelf back home." I think a real snow globe might be about fifty million times more exciting than this. Aren't there at least snowmen or Christmas trees in those things?

Wait, some kind of leader type is banging his staff into the snow and blue circles of light are waving out from it. Now Lauer is telling us about the incredible technology that's being used. I don't remember anyone prattling on like this during the most dramatic parts of the opening ceremony in Beijing. Next, Costas is telling us that Beijing spent between $300 - $400 million  on their opening ceremony, whereas this one cost between $30 - $40 million dollars. What did they spend that kind of money on? Did Sutherland hold out for an enormous fee for his voiceover?

Here comes a gigantic polar bear made of lights. Oh, I get it. Canada is sponsored by Coca Cola! But now the ice is breaking up. Is this about global warming? The floor has become the ocean, and there are whales swimming through. That part is pretty nice.

Totem poles. Nothing happening. Am I crazy to want people to start dancing now? There hasn't been much dancing yet.

"The beauty of the trees, the softness of the air, the fragrance of the grass speaks to me, and my heart soars," says Donald Sutherland.

The totem poles turn into tall trees, people in street clothes begin dancing, and Sarah McLaughlin appears and sings, "It's just another ordinary miracle today." I like the fact that there's dancing, but this feels a little Hallmark. How many Canadian performers are waiting in the wings? What next, Shania Twain and Neil Young do a duet? Why isn't Celine Dion involved yet?

Hold on, everything's changing now. There's a fiddler on the moon? Punk rock fiddlers? Maple leaves, everywhere? Fear of a Canadian planet? Punker lords of the dance, glowering at the cameras? Somersaulting punks in plaid? Matt Lauer is trying to explain all of this, but the more he talks, the more confusing it gets. Something about a street with a bunch of pubs on it. (I think we could've figured out that there were pubs involved on our own.)

Now here's a tap dancer on the platform, and more maple leaves. Now there are swarms of tap dancers. Tap dancing doesn't exactly read in a stadium. Oh, we'll fix it by adding sparklers to our heels. Wow, this is quite seriously not good. Now more maple leaves are falling from the ceiling. There are quite a few identifiably uncoordinated people in the mix out there. Oh God. When will it end?

A boy now stands in the middle of the prairie. There's been a great deal of standing while cheesy music plays. The boy is running, he's wearing a belt. NO, don't make him fly, whatever you – oh dear. Flying boy. To add insult to injury, he's doing a really terrible, "Oh my god, I'm flying!" face.

Maybe they should've spent another $360 million on this thing. Apparently $40 million doesn't buy much more than a projector, a flying boy, and a flashback to Lillith Fair '98.

Now things get very literal with a bunch of snowboarders and skiers in red, hanging from the ceiling. Ice Capades. "I think they've succeeded here," says Bob Costas, straining very hard to make us believe that this catastrophically hokey nightmare has been a success.

A slam poet appears, apparently to embarrass Bob Costas for lying through his teeth. "Define Canada." He begins. Well, Tom Brokaw already tried to do that, and it was sort of a disaster, we try to tell him, but he interrupts us. "We're more than just hockey and fishing lines off the rocky coast of the maritimes. And some say what defines us is as simple as please and thank you."

I am flabbergasted. Slam poetry about being polite. I can't believe I'm watching slam poetry at all, this after the grunge 'n' fiddle punk rock festival. Is the entire nation of Canada on about a decade delay with the rest of the world?

"We are an experiment going right for a change!" We make Canadian bacon, and ice! "We believe in generations beyond our own!" We put little maple leafs on our luggage, so no one thinks we're American, because we hate those arrogant bastards! "Canada is the what in 'What's new?'"

"Experiences are what make up the colors of our tapestry. We are the true North strong and free! And what's more is that we didn't just say it, we made it be!"

Yes, you certainly did make it be, my friend.

Here's kd lang to sing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." This is one of the best songs ever written, and kd lang is really a force to be reckoned with. That said, is this song appropriate to the moment? "She tied you to her kitchen chair." Is that a new winter event that I don't know about?

An interminable speech. An opera singer sings the Olympic hymn, an interminable song. A minute of silence for the fallen Georgian luger.

Now it's time not just to say that the Winter Olympics shall begin, but to make it be. And how do we make it be? By lighting the Olympic torch. Here comes the Olympic flame! The crowd breathes a giant sigh of relief. The torch-bearers stand around in a circle and … nothing happens.

 "Truth be told, they may be experiencing something of a mechanical difficulty here," says Costas. You don't say! Wayne Gretzky appears humiliated. Finally, three big poles go up but a fourth is missing. The torch bearers light it, and the results look like a lopsided mess. Right now I'm thinking again they probably should've ponied up that extra $360 million. You always think a cheap Olympic cauldron is going to be just as good as an expensive one, but man, are you wrong.

And do Costas and Lauer acknowledge what a big mess it is? Hell, no. Instead they're happily prattling along as Wayne Gretsky rides to the real outdoor Olympic cauldron in the rain. Why didn't they just have one cauldron? Sadly, this outdoor one looks just like the malfunctioning heap inside.

Oh, Canada. You may among the friendliest and most welcoming people on earth, but sometimes friendliness, politeness, and "making it be" just isn't enough.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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Television Winter Olympics 2010