Monday, February 15, 2010

The absolute best torch-lightings ever (or...at least since 1992)


The opening ceremonies for the Vancouver games highlighted a series of very Canadian traits. It was decidedly modest (no 300 bazillion dollar budget like Beijing) but undeniably likable (aka Steve Nash played a prominent role). And at the epicenter of everything was the Great One, Wayne Gretzky. For me though, it accentuated how questionable Canada’s contribution has been in terms of musicians. They rule the world when it comes to comedians, but the list of Canadian musicians leaves a little to be desired. Look at the list of strictly Canadian singers at the ceremony: Brian Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan…SARAH MCLACHLAN! Seriously, the only one missing was Alanis Morissette (and don’t forget Celine Dion).

Ok, so crafting quality singers that don’t give us a desire to break something isn’t their strength. That’s fine, since Canadians have been great hosts so far by all accounts. The torch lighting (the first to take place indoors which is supposedly a big deal), was mired with technical problems. In the end, it was lit by the Great One outdoors after he hoped out of the bed of a pickup truck. Personally, I thought that was awesome. They knew they couldn’t top the ridiculously glitzy show in China, so they went to their blue collar roots: just get a truck and the greatest hockey player ever (problem solved).

The lighting of the Olympic torch has become a showy item since the beginning of the ‘90s. It’s not usually good enough to simply let someone light it anymore, there has to be some twist. Here’s a look at the best since 1992:

6. 1992 Albertville, France

This was the last time they held the Summer and Winter Olympics in the same year. The winter games were chosen for France and they did not disappoint. It marked the first time since 1936 that Germany competed as a unified nation. It also was the first Olympics since the collapse of the Soviet Union, meaning that the former Soviet nations competed as a ‘Unified Nation’ (basically just a lame trick so that they didn’t have to break up their hockey team).

Soccer great and former European Player of the Year Michel Platini climbed to the summit of the Theatre des Ceremonies with 8 year old Francois-Cyrille Grange before lighting a moving cable which shot the flame into the official torch. It was the first time the torch wasn’t lit by a person. Albertville gets props because my favorite commentator, Phil Liggett, had the call (also their torch looked sneakily like a joint).

5. 2006 Torino, Italy

One of the things that I always find funny about the opening ceremony is how they try to be so politically correct in saluting various groups. I vaguely remember these toolbags running around pulling cow effigies and other people dancing in cow-like costumes. Seriously, how did that conversation go at their executive meeting? Whatever we do, let’s not forget to salute the fucking cows! They might get very offended if they aren’t specifically included! Admittedly, the music was fantastic (or, ahem, fantastico) and the actual torch lighting was superb.

They ran an almost endless array of former Italian athletes before finally ‘lighting’ the torch. (The reason for the quotation marks being that they didn’t actually light the torch at all.) Instead, former Italian cross-country skier Stefania Belmondo lit a semi-circle lighting apparatus which triggered a series of fireworks. The impressive display of fireworks ran like a serpent around the stadium, spiraling around and upward until it reached the actual torch at the top of the stadium. Pretty cool. (Also, Luciano Pavarotti locked it down at the end like Mariano Rivera, proving that it’s not just Italian soccer teams that have a great sense of timing).

4. 1996 Atlanta, USA

The last Summer Olympics held on U.S soil will be remembered more for the clear deterioration of the once mighty “Dream Team” than anything (at least that’s how I remember it). Even as a kid, it was very obvious that these guys were half-assing it in a way that Magic, Larry and MJ never would have. The dream was dead in that sense. From then on it was stagnant U.S.A basketball domination slipping slowly but inexorably into mediocrity, culminating in the disastrous 2004 shellacking they deservedly received.

The torch lighting was much more upbeat though. Unannounced to the world, the final link in the torch-chain was the Greatest himself, Muhammad Ali. It was the first time Ali had really been seen publicly for a number of years, the Parkinson’s disease having taken its toll on the former heavy weight champion. Still it was fairly uplifting; he tapped into some of the unlimited resolve that made him such a good boxer that night and showed he was determined to go on living a normal life.

3. 2008 Beijing, China

Without a doubt the most awesome spectacle ever in terms of the Opening Ceremony as a whole. Some even find it scarily impressive, but it really just got me fired up for the games (and, more specifically, watching Usain Bolt blow the doors off the 9 other fastest men in the world). It also happened the day after Russia invaded Georgia. (This caused one of my all-time favorite Presidential memories since the people I was interning for did an interview at the White House that same week. Off the cuff, Bush called Vladimir Putin a “sneaky Russian” after seeing him at the Opening Ceremonies where the Russian Prime Minister said nothing about the conflict. The now former President, according to a source that I definitely trust, sounded exactly like Will Ferrell.)

In a style befitting their Opening Ceremony as a whole, the torch was lit in what became a trademark of the Chinese: grandiose scale and imagination. Hung in midair by cables, former Chinese gold medal gymnast Li Ning ran on the side of a freaking wall. After this completely unprecedented excess of technology and money, the Chinese had a ridiculously large torch which bellowed fire after Ning lit it. Too bad the child singer earlier in the program was lip-synching though

2. 1994 Lillehamer, Norway

These were probably the first Olympics I really remember. So the fact that they brought the torch in via ski jumper is something emblazoned in my memory forever no matter what. That was the coolest thing I’d ever seen hands down. The skier, Stein Gruben (who narrowly defeats Phil Dalhausser for ‘name most likely to be a James Bond bad guy’) was a stone-cold badass as far as my 1st grade mind was concerned.

Watching it now on YouTube, you can really get a sense of how freaked out Gruben was. He looks really rattled when he’s handed the torch and then hesitates an eternal amount of time before shooting down the in-run. The whole time he’s actually moving it’s clear that he’s trying more to not fall than anything else. Then again though, he only got the gig because the first jumper they wanted hurt himself during warm-ups. Think about that for a second. This guy goes from no pressure at all in the Opening Ceremonies to Opening the Ceremonies. And for whatever reason, the Olympics tend to consistently bring out the best in people (unless you’re Marion Jones…too soon?)

1. 1992 Barcelona, Spain

The iconic image of these games was, without a doubt, the greatest basketball team ever assembled. Period. They had size, speed, unlimited talent and intelligence. Letting Magic Johnson loose on a prehistoric world talent pool with Michael Jordan on his team was like Dale Earnhardt getting to race against spoiled teenagers on the New York State Thruway. It just wasn’t fair. For American fans it might have been the most fun Olympic event to watch ever (since the outcome was guaranteed and the games were basically one giant YouTube clip.)

Yet the most impressive thing was, without a doubt, the torch lighting. This was the original showman torch-lighting and by far the best. Antonio Rebollo, an archer who had contracted Polio when he was an infant, won one of the most rigorous competitions ever to become the man who made history. He was chosen officially only two hours prior to literally firing a shot heard round the world. Standing in the middle of the stadium, Rebollo lit his arrow from the torch and then proceeded to fire it perfectly into the main Olympic torch on the top of the stadium. Think about the difficulty with something like this and then combine that with the pure pressure involved. Unbelievable.

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