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All eyes on Vancouver

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The XXI Olympic Winter Games begin today, and that's about the only thing certain about them.

The star is hurting, and there's more snow in Manhattan than on some of the mountains here.

Oh, and there could be two Olympic flames.

Back in Canada for the first time since 1988 in Calgary, the games open with the Olympics' first-ever indoor opening ceremony.

Organizers have kept a tight lid on details, and that's fitting for an Olympics full of questions.

Will the potential headline act, American skier Lindsey Vonn, overcome a shin injury and vie for multiple medals? Will the snowboard/freestyle skiing venue -- already needing emergency snow imports -- survive the latest bout of inclement weather? Will Canada's home team thrive or wilt under the pressure of its bold ambition to dominate the games?

One burning question, at least, will be answered Friday night when the opening ceremonies end with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. For days, Canadians have been speculating and debating whether the honor should go to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, the greatest player ever in Canada's most cherished sport, or some lesser-known, inspirational figure.

The flame itself finally arrived in Vancouver Thursday evening after a 106-day torch relay that passed through more than 1,000 communities in every corner of Canada over a nearly 28,000-mile route. Vancouverites waved flags, banged tambourines and rang cowbells to welcome the flame at City Hall.

On Friday, about 55,000 spectators will pack into BC Place Stadium for the opening, under the largest air-supported dome in North America. That roof may be a blessing -- the forecast predicts showers during the ceremony and through the weekend, diminishing the coast-and-mountain vistas that can be breathtaking on a clear day.

Compounding the weather problems was uncertainty over whether Vonn will be able to compete. Anything dimming her medal hopes could further damage prospects for NBC, the U.S. broadcaster, which already expects to lose millions on the Olympics.

Aided by painkillers, Vonn tested her bruised right shin Thursday, skiing for the first time since her injured last week. She came away encouraged about her Olympic prospects.

Even aside from the rain and Vonn's setback, the games' organizers had a tough act to follow -- staging an opening ceremony just 18 months after the spectacular start of the Beijing Summer Olympics, watched by a couple of billion people worldwide as China strode onto the global stage.

The Vancouver Organizing Committee opted for narrower goals, saying its foremost priority was to unite Canadians in support of the games and the national team. Canada has shed its reputation for modesty, publicly proclaimed its ambition to win the most medals, and invested $117 million in an Own The Podium program to make first place a realistic possibility by the time the games end Feb. 28.

Canada finished third four years ago in Turin, behind Germany and the United States.

"We have a team that is confident," said VANOC's CEO, John Furlong. "The country is starving for success."

For many Canadians, success will be incomplete unless it includes a gold medal for the men's hockey team, whose success or failure could be one of the games' defining dramas.

And that circles back to Gretzky. He played for Canada in the 1998 Olympics, which ended with a disappointing loss in the bronze medal game, and was executive director of the gold-medal winning team in 2002.

Gretzky has evaded questions about any possible role in the opening ceremony, and he's got some competition in terms of sentimental favorites whom some Canadians would like to see light the cauldron,

One is Betty Fox, the mother of national hero Terry Fox, who lost a leg to cancer at age 18, then attempted a cross-country Marathon of Hope in 1980. He cut short the run after hobbling 3,150 miles with an artificial leg, and died of lung cancer in 1981 at age 22 -- inspiring annual Terry Fox runs which have raised $500 million for cancer research.

Another oft-mentioned candidate for the honor is Rick Hansen, a paraplegic athlete who has won numerous wheelchair marathons and wheeled through parts of four continents to raise money for research into spinal cord injuries.

There's also been avid speculation -- based partly on TV footage and Internet-posted photographs -- that two cauldrons might be lit, one inside BC Place Stadium and one in a plaza overlooking the downtown waterfront. And social media are abuzz with reports, based on the dress rehearsal, of some of the performers expected to appear -- among them Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan and k.d. lang.

As the ceremonies begin, the first big protest of the games is planned Friday outside the stadium by an informal coalition of activists with a long list of grievances.

Their mobilization pitch was broad-based: "We call on all anti-capitalist, Indigenous, housing rights, labor, migrant justice, environmental, anti-war, community-loving, anti-poverty, civil libertarian, and anti-colonial activists to come together to confront this two-week circus."

And indeed, the games should have some circus-like qualities -- daredevils on the slopes and sliding track, pageantry galore, and likely some pratfalls with clownish aspects that will get replayed endlessly on TV and YouTube.

The organizers pronounced themselves nervous but generally satisfied as the opening ceremonies approached. The two main uncertainties: whether their intricate traffic and transport plans would unfold without major disruptions, and whether the emergency air-and-truck transfer of snow to Cypress Mountain -- venue for snowboarding and freestyle skiing -- would indeed provide world-class conditions despite record-breaking warm, wet weather.

"If it's ever possible to say that you are ready, we are ready," Furlong told the International Olympic Committee on Thursday.

Even before the opening ceremonies, the sports phase of the games begins Friday afternoon with ski jumping qualifications at Whistler, where fog, snow and rain have disrupted some of the Alpine ski training runs.

The Vancouver Sun took the unusual step of carrying a column on its front page this week, exhorting its readers to overlook Olympic inconveniences and be gracious hosts.

"The party's on," wrote columnist Stephen Hume. "All that stands in the way of a good time is a petty decision not to have one."