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Vancouver closes the Olympic Games without a glitch

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; D08

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- This wasn't in the program for the Closing Ceremony, but the show began and there a man stood. A tool-carrying electrician in baggy work pants appeared on an otherwise empty stage just as the event kicked off Sunday night, carefully studying the spot where a mechanical arm of the Olympic cauldron had malfunctioned 17 days before at the Opening Ceremony.

The electrician seized two wires with a look of inspiration, touched them together and, suddenly, the long metallic arm that stubbornly refused to move into place when it was supposed to for the cauldron lighting, finally did.

And that's how Canada wrapped up these Winter Games: Feeling so darn good about its extraordinary finish in the arena of play that it could laugh a little about the mishaps that characterized the start to the Games. Hours before Sunday's ceremony began, Canada had topped off a record-setting, 14 gold medal performance here with an overtime victory over the U.S. men's hockey team that set off a wild celebration around the nation.

The extremely happy ending to an Olympics filled with so many unexpected challenges turned Sunday night into an excuse for an explosion of Canadian pride. "Oh, Canada, we did it," singer Suzie McNeil told the crowd just before the ceremony began. "We believed." When International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge declared officiously, as has been a longstanding tradition, the Games officially closed, fans actually booed.

Rogge, surprised, looked up and grinned.

Earlier, when John Furlong, the chief of the Vancouver organizing committee, made a veiled reference to the hockey team's triumph in a speech, saying that the "last [gold] will be remembered for generations," fans interrupted with wild applause. They stood and waved Canadian flags, the ovation delaying the ceremony for more than a minute.

Canadians "are more united, more in love with our country and more connected with each other than ever before," Furlong said. "The Olympic Games have lifted us up. . . . The most beautiful kind of patriotism broke out around our country."

No one, of course, ever got past the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who lost control of his sled during a training run the morning of the Opening Ceremony. Kumaritashvili received a tribute and long ovation Sunday, but the pall that surrounded opening night, during which the Georgian team paraded in solemnly wearing black armbands, was gone. Instead, an undercurrent of satisfaction and joy ran through the closing event of what had been a tumultuous Games.

Various mishaps followed the opening-day tragedy, bringing swift and frequent criticism on organizers. The cauldron arm malfunctioned, then a high, chain-link fence was placed around the cauldron on the waterfront, preventing visitors from taking unobstructed photos. An ice-cleaning machine at the speed skating venue failed to work. Officials at a medal event in biathlon mistakenly prevented athletes from starting on time.

Meantime, Canadian athletes floundered at the start, picking up a medal here or there, but quickly falling out of the race for the overall medal lead.

The turnaround came fast. On Sunday night, Rogge declared that Vancouver had put on "an excellent and very friendly Games."

"The extraordinary embrace of the entire city of the Olympic Games is something I have never seen on this scale before," Rogge said before the ceremony. "This is really something unique that has given a great atmosphere for the Games."

Sochi, Russia, the site of the next Winter Games, introduced itself with a display of Russian culture that featured performances by the nation's legendary Bolshoi Ballet and Mariinsky Theatre. Washington Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin and figure skater Evgeni Plushenko participated in the presentation along with former figure skating great Irina Rodnina and hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak. All waved to the crowd and held hands with Russian children.

Canadian entertainers William Shatner, Catherine O'Hara and Michael J. Fox later offered a comic take on what it means to be Canadian before the program moved into an over-the-top revue involving giant inflatable beavers and moose plus dancers dressed as mounties.

"It doesn't matter where you live or where you were born, Canada's a big tent," Fox said, "and if you're good at something, we'll claim you."

Hours before, sport officials addressed a more serious matter: They vowed these Games would mark a turning point. A nation once content with hard-fought fourth-place finishes would never again aspire to anything less than the top of the podium.

At this Games, a nation that hadn't won a single gold at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and '88 Games in Calgary won more than any nation ever had in any Winter Games.

"It is clear Canadians have taken a stand for sport," said Marcel Aubut, the Canadian Olympic Committee's president-elect. "We have turned a corner, and we must never look back."

Earlier in the Games, sport officials faced derision over their bold predictions that Canadian athletes, fueled by a $117 million injection of private and government funds, would "own the podium" here, winning more medals than any other nation. Though Canada's overall total (26) fell short of the United States (37) and Germany (30), the remarkable flurry of late medals -- including six gold -- over the last five days of competition provided a psychological boost, it seemed, to the entire nation.

"As I said in the opening press conference, we were going to own the podium and we did it -- the very top of the podium," Aubut said. "The Games have produced heroes from all corners of the country. . . . This was nation-building at its best."

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