A dark cloud over VANOC’s Olympic-sized party

Prior to the luge tragedy, there was a sense that everything in was finally coming together

Magic. That’s the word that John Furlong, the CEO of the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee likes to use to describe the feeling at the heart of the Olympics. That mixture of awe, excitement, pride and unabashed glee that takes hold in a host city when the flame is lit. And if all goes well, the host country too.

As the minutes tick down to tonight’s opening ceremony, Furlong and his VANOC colleagues have had precious little time to revel in that feeling. After years of planing, toil, and anxiety the job still isn’t done. And just when the city finally came alive with the Olympic spirit, tragedy struck.

The death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Whistler sliding centre today, is a nightmare beginning for the 2010 Games. There will be hard questions about safety at the track—the fastest in the world by a considerable amount—and the press for home court advantage that limited the amount of practice time for foreign athletes at the venue over the past year. (And it won’t just be VANOC in the cross-hairs. The international Luge and Bobsleigh federations approved the track’s design and signed off on its safety.)

Not that anything has been easy so far. A global economic meltdown one year out from the Olympics threatened to turn the event into a Montreal-style millstone. The carping and complaining over everything from the multi-billion dollar price tag, to traffic restrictions, to noisy celebrations (people are drinking at the Irish Pavilion downtown!) has sometimes given the impression of a populace that is braced for a siege rather than a celebration. And the spring-like weather continues to cause sleepless nights. “We’ve climbed a lot of mountains and hit a lot of obstacles,” Furlong said yesterday. “It’s an enormously challenging process. It takes the best you have to give.”

Prior to the luge tragedy, there was a sense that everything was finally coming together. It snowed up on Cypress yesterday. (Not enough to bring an end to the massive snow-shifting and preservation operation that has been going on for close to a month, but at least it wasn’t rain.) The much-ballyhooed protests have so far been small and peaceful. And as the Olympic torch winds its way through the city, tens of thousands are lining the streets to cheer, wave flags, and snap a picture. When the procession passed by the corner of Denman and Davie shortly before 8 am this morning, the sidewalks were packed. So too were the windows and balconies of the condo towers overlooking English Bay. And hundreds jogged along the street in the torch bearers’ wake. It’s a rolling, Vancouver-wide party. Even Stephen Harper is getting cheers as he makes his way around the downtown, dressed in a tie and an official Team Canada jacket.

For once, the chatter wasn’t about deficits or disruptions, but rather who—or what—will light the Olympic cauldron this evening. Wayne Gretzky, Terry Fox’s mother Betty, or perhaps a ghost-image of the late runner himself. The organizers are keeping their lips sealed tight. The usual pre-ceremony briefing for the media won’t happen until minutes before the festivities kick off. And Furlong says that only the final torch bearer and four other people know the secret. (Although it has been confirmed that Bryan Adams, Céline Dion, Sarah McLachlan, and one other horseman of the apocalypse will sing.)

Yesterday, the VANOC chief likened the final hours to the moments before a big game, sitting in the dressing room with that nervous feeling in your stomach. But that mix of anticipation and anxiety is exactly what he wanted to be feeling at this point, he said. VANOC was ready. The city was ready. So too were the athletes. “We had a vision and it’s held us together from the beginning,” Furlong said. “That we could really unite Canadians and give them a sense of something magic.”

Now, a pall has been cast over the celebrations. VANOC and the International Olympic committee will have a difficulty time dealing with issues raised by Kumaritashvili’s death. It could be the biggest challenge yet.

The 2010 Olympics are about to begin. Cue the lights. And the sad music.

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