Vancouver Hopes to Top Turin's Olympic Opener

The fat guy sang on a chill, clear Turin night, which is about as appropriate an ending for the operatic excess of an Olympic opening ceremony as one can imagine.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 20, 2006

The fat guy sang on a chill, clear Turin night, which is about as appropriate an ending for the operatic excess of an Olympic opening ceremony as one can imagine.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 20, 2006


Vancouver Hopes to Top Turin's Olympic Opener

The fat guy sang on a chill, clear Turin night, which is about as appropriate an ending for the operatic excess of an Olympic opening ceremony as one can imagine. Of course, it was not just any fat guy that organizers of the XX Olympic Winter Games selected, it was Luciano Pavarotti, the supreme fat guy. The opening ceremonies - properly done - are the ultimate advertorial, beamed to some two billion viewers. They reveal to the world the soul of a city, a region and a nation. These ceremonies, accessorized by Giorgio Armani no less, said Turin is not just the gritty industrial home of Fiat, the financially frail automaker, it is also a place of history, culture and élan. "We were trying to capture the passionate way Italians approach things, good and bad," explained executive producer Marco Balich. The event also said: "Here we burn money with style." This was amply illustrated by the "Sparks of Passion," those crazed rollerbladers who careened around the stadium shooting two-metre red flames from their helmets.

The Olympic cauldron will burn brightly throughout these GAMES, but the Sparks represent a kind of ceremonial torch passing to VANCOUVER, host of the next Winter Games in 2010. Here is the flame, Canada, feed it your money. Among the 35,000 spectators in the stands were many of the 80 members of Vancouver's organizing committee. They face the challenge of organizers past: how to top the always escalating demand for an ever more spectacular Olympic opening.

It's a subject that VANOC, the Vancouver organizing committee, won't even talk about. Its first priority, members say, is the vital eight-minute segment featuring popster Avril Lavigne that Vancouver gets in the Turin closing ceremonies on Feb. 26. This alone has taken long months of planning by a select group labouring in absolute secrecy. Staging the opening and closing ceremonies - to be held inside the giant inflated pillow of B.C. Place Stadium - is an order of magnitude higher.

So far only two things about it are known with certainty: one, the budget VANOC allocated for the opening and closing ceremonies is $18.7 million, and, two, that won't be enough. Like most parts of the Olympic budget, set in 2002 dollars, it will surely climb. The question is, who gets to spend the money? One likely possibility is Montreal-based CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, which has practically patented the sort of athleticism and avant-garde artistry that plays well in Olympic events. The fact that photos of Cirque performers were used to illustrate the "Olympism and Culture" chapter of Vancouver's bid book might be a possible clue. If so, Cirque isn't saying. A call to its Montreal headquarters was referred to VANOC, which refused all comment.

Jacques Lemay, co-founder of the Canadian College of Performing Arts in the Victoria suburb of Oak Bay, is one person VANOC consulted in producing its eight-minute segment for Turin, and with good reason. Lemay, 53, was a choreographer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet when he was tapped to be artistic director of the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics - an unabashed celebration of all things Albertan.

"We were following on the heels of the Los Angeles Olympics and the question was, how are you going to top that? I said, we're not going to, we're going to make it distinctively Calgary, Alberta, Canada." And it was, right down to a field full of vividly costumed two-stepping square dancers, who, viewed from the stands at McMahon Stadium, folded into a giant Alberta rose. It was, save for Canada's Snowbirds blowing smoke trails in Olympic colours, one of the last low-tech ceremonies. Its power, and Lemay's greatest challenge, came from its giant cast of 6,500 performers, volunteers and crew. The challenge today, he says, is satisfying a global audience's need for something unique. "In a way," Lemay says, "everything has been done." Still, he says, Vancouver's indoor opening and closing ceremonies, an Olympic first, are alive with possibility. "When you have control over the weather and the environment, the sky is the limit."

The challenge for VANOC four years from now will be striking the right tone. Does it join the technological arms race of recent ceremonies, or try a more homegrown Calgary approach? The Albertville Winter Games in 1992 set the modern standard with a lavish show that appeared to have been produced by Dr. Seuss - elaborately costumed stilt-walkers, women inside giant snow globes, acrobats tied to bungee cords, and plenty of modern dance. "Typically French," reported the New York Times. Since then, most host nations have followed the same avant-garde path. In Athens, there was the supremely weird Icelandic chanteuse, Björk, singing an anthem about sea creatures, and rolling tableaus with performers dressed as classical statues. There's also the requisite big stunt, pioneered by the guy with the jet pack at the Los Angeles Summer Games. Barcelona had the Paralympian archer light the flame, in Lillehammer it was the torch-bearing ski-jumper. Audiences have also grown accustomed to moments of high emotion, like Cathy Freeman's run with the torch in Sydney, or Muhammad Ali's surprise entrance in Atlanta. Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu, and for some reason, Steven Spielberg, carrying in the Olympic flag in Salt Lake City. And this time, Pavarotti interrupting his farewell tour to belt out a Puccini aria for the home crowd, one more time.

But all that pomp and circumstance comes at a high price. The estimated tab for the opening and closing ceremonies in Turin is 28 million euros - twice Vancouver's budget. And as the production values rise, and the number of nations participating in the Games continues to grow, the official welcome now often sprawls on for three or four hours - not so pleasant on a cold winter's evening. Many athletes, especially those who must compete in the first days, no longer attend, judging the hassle too disruptive to the quest for gold.

Calgary was the first Olympics to let athletes sit during the ceremony, an act of kindness that Vancouver should consider. "We are celebrating our athletes," says Lemay, "they should have a seat of honour." Lemay offers a last bit of advice: don't let the pageantry and technology overshadow the human element. "To me," he says, "that's what makes it a joyful event." Well, that, and a big pot of money.

Maclean's February 20, 2006