Ten things to watch for during Vancouver’s Opening Ceremony

The 2010 Winter Olympics begin Friday night in Vancouver. To prepare for the kickoff to the Games, Fourth-Place Medal takes a look at the 10 things to watch for during the Opening Ceremony:

1. Who will light the Olympic torch? — Up until Thursday night, former hockey star Wayne Gretzky had been the clubhouse favorite to light the Olympic cauldron. The Great One arrived in Vancouver earlier in the week, his father already served as a torchbearer and Gretzky himself had dodged all questions about the lighting of the cauldron. He also was the choice of Canadians, earning the most votes in a poll asking who should be the final torchbearer. But late Thursday night VANOC chief John Furlong said definitively that the Ontario native and 2002 gold medal-winning coach will not light the cauldron. This development perhaps opens up the door for Betty Fox, the mother of the late cancer activist Terry Fox. The Vancouver native, whose statue rests outside the venue for the Opening Ceremony, raised millions for research of the disease with his runs in the 1970s. Since his death in 1981, his mother has kept his memory and foundation alive. We predict that Gretzky will be the penultimate torchbearer and hand-off to Fox, who will light the flame.

2. This won’t be a replay of Beijing’s Opening Ceremony — After the stunning Opening Ceremony display two years ago in China, Vancouver organizers have smartly downplayed expectations for their show Friday night. With a wildly disproportionate budget, thousands of fewer volunteers and an inability to come close to matching the man-hours put in by Beijing performers, Vancouver couldn’t possibly have expected to match the pageantry put on in the Bird’s Nest in 2008. But that doesn’t mean Friday night won’t be special. Officials have said to expect “more emotion than spectacle.”

3. Canadian themes — A good Opening Ceremony doesn’t need a massive budget or thousands of performers, it needs to entertainingly reflect the culture of the host country in a manner that’s easily relatable to the three billion people watching on television. As such, expect sections this evening about aboriginal culture, the frigid weather and the sports that accompany it and, perhaps, some theatrics from Canada’s most famous performing troupe, Cirque de Soleil.

4. The first indoor Opening Ceremony — For the first time in history the Opening Ceremony of an Olympics will be held indoors. BC Place, a domed arena in downtown Vancouver and the largest air-supported structure in the world, will play host to the Opening Ceremony and Closing Ceremony of the Games of XXI Winter Olympics. A sold out crowd of 60,600 is expected in the oddly-shaped venue (affectionately known as “the marshmallow” by Canadians). The decision to hold the ceremony inside worked out well for organizers. Rain is forecasted for Friday night in the host city.

5. Parade of nations — As is custom, each nation’s Olympic delegation will march into BC Place before the cauldron is lit. They’ll enter in alphabetical order with two exceptions: The founding country of the Olympics, Greece, will enter first while host Canada will march last. Unlike in 2006, the Koreas will not march as a unified team. More than 2,500 athletes from approximately 85 countries are expected to participate in the parade. The United States is expected to be the 82nd country to march.

6. Who will be carrying the flags? — Other than winning a gold medal, there’s no greater honor at the Winter Olympics than serving as flagbearer during the parade of nations. Only 85 athletes will have the distinction, compared to the 86 who could potentially win gold. Though there will be big names (Jaromir Jagr for the Czech Republic, Clara Hughes for Canada) it’s the unknowns that bring the best stories. The best of those comes courtesy Marjan Kalhor, a 21-year old alpine skier who is the first woman from Iran to compete in a Winter Olympics.

7. Multiple cauldrons — BC Place will be the home of the main Olympic cauldron, but in a break from the norm, Vancouver may have another cauldron burning the Olympic flame. Though the reports have yet to be confirmed, many outlets have stated that a second flame will be lit near the Vancouver waterfront in honor of the first VANOC chair, Jack Poole, who died in October, just hours after the Olympic flame was lit in Ancient Olympia. The single cauldron dates back to 1928, when one was lit in Amsterdam. A mystery cube near the Vancouver broadcasting center is the supposed home of the second cauldron, but organizers are keeping it under wraps until Friday night, at the earliest.

8. Leaks — Though the 60,000 fans who attended either of the two Opening Ceremony dress rehearsals are bound by strict non-disclosure agreements, a few details have leaked out about the festivities. Some fans posted pictures of the rehearsal on Facebook and others took to Twitter to describe the action. We won’t spoil it, but some of the details are enticing, to say the least. The good news for American viewers is that the ceremony is being aired live (to the eastern and central time zones — sorry, west coast) this time around, so the big surprises should stay that way until they’re revealed. Thanks to the time difference between the United States and China, the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Games was a few hours old by the time it was aired on tape-delay on NBC, so mamy of the details were already known Stateside.

9. Which entertainers will participate in the Games? — Expect to see Canadian stars Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang and Nelly Furtado perform at the Opening Ceremony.

10. Will Lindsey Vonn march? — The potential star of the Olympics suffered a shin injury while on a practice skiing run last week. Though she said Thursday that the leg is improving, it may be foolish to risk aggrevating the ailment by standing for three hours during the Opening Ceremony. It wouldn’t be an unprecedented move. Michael Phelps, the 14-time gold medalist to whom Vonn is often compared, didn’t march in Beijing because he had his first swim race the next morning. The first of Vonn’s five races is scheduled for Sunday, but that may be delayed because of weather.

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