The day before the opening ceremonies, the chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee was asked what story he hoped to tell on the Winter Olympics’ first night.
“Often people think we’re you,” he said to an American journalist. “This is part of a chance to let Canada be seen on its own terms.”
So it was.
Indeed, the most memorable moments of the opening ceremonies came when Canada felt perhaps most unfamiliar. Fiddlers dressed like Hells Angels? Weary white-clad travelers walking across the snowy tundra? The aurora borealis come to earth?
No one will be mistaking that for America. It was, in the spirit of the national anthem, “the true north strong and free.”
Beijing, however, it was not – and that by design. While it was China’s evident desire to leave attending heads of state with an inferiority complex, that was never likely to be Canada’s way of going about things.
Then, in another attempt – a subtle and respectful one, of course – to draw a distinction between Canada and its southern neighbor, he recited a poem of all things Canada – “a” to “zed,” not “zee.”
The ceremonies painted Canada as the stately columns of Douglas fir in Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island. Or as a pod of orca whales, gliding beneath the calm surface of the Pacific.
Time and again, the ceremonies returned to a theme that, to the visitor to Canada, appears an animating and distinguishing characteristic of life here: a love and even reverence for the vastness of the Canadian wilderness.
In a nation where the people are still swallowed within the enormity of nature – still as much guests as masters – awe at the outdoors is a instinct sewn into the very core of the country’s being.
Canadians have striven to put on the greenest Winter Olympics in the history of the movement not because it was perceived to be the right thing to do, but because it accords with the deepest sense of what Canada is, and the opening ceremonies caught some glimpse of that.
A note of compassion
Canadian, too, was the demeanor of VANOC chief executive John Furlong, who could not even manage a smile on what could be considered the most triumphant day of his professional life. That was because a 21-year-old Georgian Olympian, Nodar Kumaritashvili, had been killed earlier in the day in a crash on the luge course.
For Furlong, all the spectacle of years of work finally come to fruition could not outweigh the compassion he felt for one young guest to his Olympic Games.
Along a downtown Vancouver street, one chain of bookstores has plastered every display with a bold claim: The world needs more Canada.
During the next 16 days, the world will get a double helping. It remains to be seen how Canada will manage the expected victories on the podium as well as the expected disappointments of weather that could try the patience of athletes and audience alike.
On Friday night, however, Canada gave the world a sneak peek of a world with a lot more Canada.
And it was quite pleasant.
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