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Opening ceremony called 'a great lift' on a day that began with sorrow

February 13, 2010 |  7:32 am

The usual giddiness and joy that infuse the Olympic opening ceremony was tempered Friday by the death earlier in the day of luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was remembered in the dedication of the broadcast and with a moment of silence after the Olympic anthem.

Gretzky But John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, said afterward that the celebration of Canada's culture and history and the unity of so many athletes at Vancouver's BC Place stadium would go a long way toward easing the sorrow of the 21-year-old Georgian athlete's death in a training accident.

"This has been just about the most challenging day you could imagine. We've had a day like no other ever," he said. "We never in a thousand years would have dreamed of dealing with the things we've had today.

"But while the day was very challenging and tragic and sad, tonight was a night where I have to say I felt extremely proud of what took place in the stadium. ... Tonight, after a very difficult day, was a great lift for us. It was a wonderful lift and a tribute to the athletes and hopefully tomorrow, as the sporting events begin, that the athletes will feed off this energy and we will have extraordinary competition and lots of thrills before the Games are over."

The one glitch that stood out was the failure of a mechanical arm to rise from the stadium floor to form what was supposed to be a four-armed central caldron. After Paralympian Rick Hansen delivered the flame, two-time speedskating gold medalist Catriona LeMay Doan was supposed to join Wayne Gretzky, skier Nancy Greene and basketball player Steve Nash in touching their torches to an arm of the caldron. However, LeMay Doan was forced to stand and watch the others when the arm in front of her didn't materialize.

David Atkins, executive producer of the opening ceremony, said the fourth leg had a mechanical failure whose cause had not been determined.

"One of the arms of the caldron wasn't able to be delivered to the field of play," he said. "Fortunately the caldron functions with three arms, as you saw, and the team did an extraordinary job at the last minute recovering from that and reprogramming the caldron to still be delivered to the central burner."

He praised LeMay Doan for not panicking and everyone else involved for proceeding as best as possible. "It was an example of the fact that we're all human," Atkins said, "and the ceremony celebrated that fact in all sorts of ways."

Gretzky later was singled out to carry the flame out of the stadium and through the rainy streets of downtown Vancouver to a waterfront plaza, where he ignited a caldron that will burn throughout the Games. "Today was one of the great days not only for me but for my family," he said, adding that his father, Walter, had participated in the torch relay during the day.

He also said that he found out late that he would be one of the final torchbearers in the stadium, and that he was sworn to secrecy. The other participants were also sworn to secrecy and didn't learn about the others' involvement until two nights ago.

"The last thing John said was, 'If it gets out, you're replaced.' None of us wanted to be replaced," Gretzky said.

-- Helene Elliott in Vancouver

Photo: Wayne Gretzky carries the Olympic torch. Credit: Jim Young, Getty Images.