The Olympic flame kissed the dark Vancouver sky, a bright symbol of hope on a day of shocking loss.
After months of speculation, it was hockey great Wayne Gretzky who lit the outdoor cauldron and officially launched the Vancouver Olympics on Friday night.
He had met fellow Canadian sports legends Steve Nash, Senator Nancy Greene Raine, Catriona Le May Doan and Rick Hansen to light flames inside BC Place, then bounded out of the stadium after some technical problems. In the rain, he stood on the back of a truck and travelled to the external cauldron with a police escort through cheering crowds.
The permanent cauldron is made of four pillars resembling ice, leaning together like the twigs of a cottage bonfire.
Earlier, cheers rocked the covered stadium as flag-bearer Clara Hughes's bright grin led the Canadian contingent at the opening ceremony.
The Governor General, the prime minister and 60,000 fans who packed the arena all rose to celebrate the host nation. And perhaps, the sombre spirit of the Olympics rose, too.
The colourful ceremony was staged against a backdrop of tragedy. Hours earlier, luger Nodar Kumaritashvili from the Republic of Georgia died in a training accident at Whistler.
Wearing black hats, scarves and armbands, the seven grieving athletes of the Georgian Olympic team marched in to a standing ovation. They were led by downhill skier Iason Abramashvili, who carried a black-trimmed flag.
The ceremony welcoming about 2,500 athletes representing 82 nations — was dedicated to Kumaritashvili.
Jumping through rings
The celebration opened with a snowboarder jumping through Olympic rings at the stadium.
"Welcome to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games," the snowboarder announced to a cheering crowd.
With dignitaries including Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge looking on, native dancers in traditional garb sang and danced as the athletes paraded into the arena.
As usual, Greece, led the way with athletes waving their blue and white stripes proudly, honoured as the inaugural Olympic hosts.
Albania, Algeria, Andorra followed — and the parade continued.
A solitary athlete from Colombia carried his nation's flag to its first Winter Olympics. Later, Ethiopia's four athletes waved the red, yellow and green flag ahead of Finland.
A breathtaking celebration of Canadian culture followed the athletes' march. The performance traced Canada's history, culture and landscape.
The floor of BC Place was transformed into a virtual sea, with orca whales drifting lazily, their image reflected off the roof.
Nelly Furtado and Bryan Adams shared a duet, and Sarah McLachlan followed, playing the piano and singing Ordinary Miracles.
Ashley MacIsaac led a group of fiddlers, as river dancers twisted and turned around a stage adorned with giant maple leaves.
The Prairies were celebrated through the eyes of a young person. Suspended from above, the youth drifted above an image of wind-blown wheat. It rippled as he dipped down and sailed across it, to strains of Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now. The image of blue horses galloped across the floor.
Rogge and VANOC chief John Furlong, both wearing black ties of mourning, welcomed the athletes.
Furlong called the competitors "heroes," "giants" and "human champions" — adding a special tribute to Kumaritashvili.
"At these Games you now have the added burden to shine and be united around your fallen colleague, Nodar," he said. "May you carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders, and compete with his spirit in your heart."
After Jean officially proclaimed the Games open and k.d. lang sang Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, the Olympic flag was carried in by eight other Canadian luminaries:
- astronaut Julie Payette.
- actor Donald Sutherland.
- singer Anne Murray.
- former figure skater Barbara Ann Scott.
- Senator Romeo Dallaire.
- hockey legend Bobby Orr.
- auto racer Jacques Villeneuve.
- Betty Fox, mother of Terry Fox.
Hayley Wickenheiser, captain of the Canadian women's hockey team, swore the Olympic athletes' oath. The indoor ceremony came to a close as Gretzky and his fellow sports stars carried flames to the centre of BC Place.
A few awkward moments passed as a mechanical problem delayed the emergence of a symbolic cauldron from the BC Place floor. The Canadian legends held their torches and looked anxious as they waited for the four pillars to rise.
For a moment, it looked as if the glitch might be an unfortunate end to the Olympic celebration, marred earlier by a slow rendition of the national anthem by Nikki Yanofsky that confused Canadians from coast to coast. Then, like a hydraulic-driven phoenix, the contraption rose.
Games organizers and people across the country breathed sighs of relief and Gretzky rode off into the rainy Vancouver night to finish the ceremony.