For this author, it was the exploitation of Aborigines: Even though they were given prominent position during the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Canada’s natives continue to be treated as second-rate citizens by the Canadian government and remain largely impoverished.
Case in point: Of the 206 athletes who are representing Canada in the Games, only one — snowboarder Caroline Calve from Quebec — is an Aborigine. If the Canadian team were truly representative of Canada’s ethnic fabric, there would be seven or eight Aborigines on the team (about 4 percent of the population identify as Aboriginal). Canada will also have only one Aborigine — Colette Bourgonje — at the Paralympic Winter Games next month.
That some of the “authentic” First Nations Olympic souvenirs were found to have been manufactured in China, Italy and Thailand, when one in four children in First Nations communities lives in poverty (the highest rate is in British Columbia), also underscores the handicap that Canada’s Aborigines face today.
That said, artistic director David Atkins gave us an eyeful on Feb. 12, turning BC Place in Vancouver into a dreamlike scene that blended actors, dancers, an unprecedented use of projectors, as well as poetry and music. For many, the highlights were the wonderful narration by Canadian actor Donald Sutherland and K.D. Lang’s haunting rendition of the great Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, where the signer stood, alone, among millions of bright stars in the night.
Above all, the ceremony distinguished itself through its focus on the individual and its embrace of difference. Carrying the Olympic flag, for example, were individuals such as Romeo Dallaire, who led UN peacekeeping forces during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The torch, meanwhile, was carried in by Rick Hansen, a paraplegic athlete. Lang is lesbian. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky did not light the torch alone; he was one among equals.
This was quite the contrast with the opening ceremonies in Beijing in August 2008, where the individual could not be distinguished from the masses and where a child was deemed not pretty enough (she had crooked teeth) to sing before the public and was therefore replaced by a picture-perfect lip-synching stand-in. Beijing gave many a frisson, a spectacular feat that sent a chill down one’s spine. It screamed nationalism unleashed, the setting in motion of a wheel that crushed the individual on its road to glory. And criticism of the ceremony — at least domestically — was silenced.
In the end, Atkins’ work was far more moving for its centering on the individual and its humility in design. It was much more intimate and drew the spectator in rather than keep him at bay. However grandiose Zhang Yimou’s (張藝謀) Beijing feat may have been, it was difficult to connect emotionally with his work. It was exclusive rather than inclusive, meant to intimidate rather than to inspire.
Ultimately, Vancouver showed maturity and confidence, something that was lacking in Beijing — and continues to be lacking today. Humility can be strength where muscular fanfare is a sign of weakness.
This article appeared on Feb. 24 in the Taipei Times.