Canada Vs. China - one against the many

A scene from the torch lighting at the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremony.//Reuters
A scene from the torch lighting at the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremony.//Reuters

What a difference two years make.

While it was nowhere the size, or as flashy, the opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was a wonderful counterpoint to Beijing. Well, except for that whole torch snafu.

No one expected Canada's opening ceremony to rival the awe-inspiring spectacle that Beijing displayed at the 2008 summer games. For one thing, geography and sporting traditions dictate that the winter games will always be a smaller affair, with less nations and less athletes being involved. The price tag of the Canadian opening ceremony was similarly downsized, costing an estimated $30 to $40 million, as opposed to the more than $100 million for the Beijing show.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair perhaps said it best, when he called Beijing's opening ceremony as "the spectacular to end all spectaculars and probably can never be bettered."

The Beijing show was textbook Chinese. Pride in centuries of tradition? Check. Strong sense of unity (critics would say conformity)? Check. Emphasis on the massive size of the nation? The 14,000 performers say check. It was big, boisterous, and between all the pyrotechnic explosions and all those soldiers, it definitely had a militaristic air. Celebration of the individual? Not so much. The person getting the most camera time - that cute, singing little girl - lip syncing because the actual singer wasn't cute enough. Also, the song was literally a hymn to the motherland, because the Chinese anthem, and the theatrical history lesson wasn't enough.

And then there is the fact that Canada is... well, Canadian. Mild mannered, polite, friendly, humble - If you're looking for a country to throw a rocking show you're probably looking in the wrong place. Hopes for a great show definitely plummeted when news hit that Cirque du Soleil, unarguably the most entertaining thing to ever come out of Canada (you shut your damn mouths, Celine Dion fans!), would not be part of the show. The Canadian track record with producing the show hasn't exactly inspired confidence either. Check out the video clip below, and notice how (at 1:06) even the Canadian athletes seem underwhelmed by the festivities.

But for all the low expectations, and that cringing torch lighting finale, the Vancouver 2010 ceremony was a pitch-perfect counterpoint to what the world saw in 2008.

David Atkins designed the ceremony. He's the same guy who did the Sidney opening, and said he was actually relieved when he saw what the Chinese had done. No sense in trying to go bigger, he said he'd go for a more intimate ceremony.

"There are moments, a number of moments where there's a single performer," Atkins said, when describing how the show was planned to be different from Beijing.

And that is what made it great. From the opening video showing Canadian snowboarder Johnny Lyall standing alone atop a jagged peak, to the moment of silence near the end in dedication to the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, the theme of individuality was made early and often. Lyall began his descent, beautifully photographed like a Steve Miller movie, and he eventually made his way down to a bunch of torch bearers, outlying a Canadian maple leaf. But honestly, who didn't want to see more of that snowboard run!

The rest of the ceremony continued to show off the strength and beauty of individual experience. There was Donald Sutherland reciting poetry, exalting the beauty of Canada, through the lens of personal expression. There was the solitary boy, soaring above the symbolic plains of the Canadian countryside. The flying child thing may have been done before, but the extraordinary focus that one figure alone on the plains definitely continued the theme of individuality.

And then there was more poetry, as Canadian slam poet Shane Koyczan performed his poem titled "We are more." And here, a second theme in the many differences between Vancouver and Beijing was made clear. The Beijing ceremony focused on the glories of the past, of tradition, while Koyczan's poem exalted the future, and the accomplishments of a successful modern society.

So yeah, the torch thing was embarrassing, the drunk fiddling tap dancing thing was a bit weird, and the whole thing was much smaller, but all in all, it is hard to imagine a better kind of opening ceremony to follow up Beijing.

We'll have to wait another two years to see what London 2012 will be like.

Oh Canada, how far you've come

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