Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tragedy overshadows Olympic opening

VANCOUVER — The Winter Olympics offically opened but Vancouver's big day was overshadowed by the tragic death of a Georgian luger in a horrific crash.

The BC Place stadium staged a colourful indoor ceremony on Friday involving a host of stars linking Canada's past with the modern nation, including a welcome from the country's Native peoples.

It culminated years of planning as some 2,500 athletes from 82 nations prepare to compete in the February 12-28 showpiece, with Canadian governor general Michaelle Jean officially declaring the event open.

With flags at half-mast in honour of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge reminded all athletes of their responsibility as role models.

"Dear athletes, these Games belong to you ... so give them the magic that we all desire through your performances and your conduct," he said.

"Remember that you are role models for the youth of the world. There is no glory without responsibility."

Organisers were faced with their worst nightmare when Kumaritashvili died earlier in the day after flying off the Olympic luge track at high speed and smashing into a metal pillar during a training run.

The 21-year-old was knocked unconscious and immediately placed on a stretcher with blood pouring from his face before being air-lifted to hospital and pronounced dead.

"This is a very sad day. The International Olympic Committee is in deep mourning," a visibly shaken Rogge said earlier.

"He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident. I have no words to say what we feel."

Georgia's shellshocked eight-man team, now reduced to seven, considered pulling out of the Games but decided to compete in honour of Kumaritashvili.

"During the 2008 Summer Olympics Georgia was invaded by Russia and despite this they stayed and won several medals," said Georgia's minister for sports and culture Nikolos Rurua.

"So our sportsmen have decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games and compete and dedicate their efforts to their fallen comrade."

They marched into the stadium wearing black armbands in a sombre mood and were greeted by a standing ovation from the 60,000-strong crowd. There was later a minute's silence.

The IOC said an investigation into the crash was underway and it was too early to say whether the luge events, which are due to begin on Saturday, will go ahead.

With tragedy hanging over the Games, organisers continued to battle warm weather in Vancouver and on nearby Cypress Mountain, the host of the freestyle events.

Tonnes of snow have had to be driven and helicoptered in from higher elevations to Cypress, and rain has further complicated matters.

Up at Whistler, site of the blue-riband alpine skiing events, it is not a case of no snow but too much snow.

The poor conditions and a lack of training runs forced the women's opening alpine skiing event, the super-combined scheduled for Sunday, to be postponed until a yet to be decided day.

The men's downhill event is set for Saturday morning, but with more rain and snow forecast overnight, that too could be in jeopardy.

Despite the conditions, the Olympics began at Whistler with ski jump qualifying.

Six gold medals are set to be decided on the first competitive day on Saturday.

The Games' build-up culminated with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, signalling the end of a marathon which has seen the torch cross 45,000km of the country.

It met small-scale protests on the final leg Friday when around 100 demonstrators, upset over the financial and environmental impact of the Olympics, briefly blocked the relay route.

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