Vancouver Games get off to somber start following luger's death

Enjoy an up close and personal look at the action in Canada.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 13, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- In an indoor arena covered with fake snow, decorated with giant plastic icicles and inundated with paper snow flurries, Canada celebrated the opening of a Winter Games it hopes its athletes will dominate, even while organizers admitted being devastated by the death of a Georgian luge athlete who was thrown out of his sled during a practice run earlier in the day.

The frightful accident that killed Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, cast a pall over an Opening Ceremony of a Games intended to showcase Vancouver as an environmentally friendly, socially conscious, multi-cultural city with enough winter sports muscle to win more medals than any other country for the first time. Organizers announced that the ceremony would be performed in Kumaritashvili's memory.

Georgian athletes marched somberly among the 82 nations with black armbands and a black patch on their nation's flag to a standing ovation from the 60,600 at BC Arena, the first indoor venue for an Opening Ceremony in Olympic history. Canadian organizers tried to lift the mood with fireworks, dazzling light effects and history-drenched performances, but they paused to honor Kumaritashvili's memory.

Hours after Vancouver Olympic Games Executive Director John Furlong described Canadian organizers as "broken-hearted," he told the assembled Olympic athletes to "carry [Kumaritashvili's] Olympic dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your hearts." After a moment of silence, the Olympic and Canadian flags were lowered to half mast.

At the end of the night, two Olympic cauldrons were lit; one that emerged from the floor of the arena and a second in nearby Coal Harbour. Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was the last of five Canadian sport stars to carry the flame; the giant indoor cauldron was jointly lit.

Canadian gold medalist Rick Hansen had carried the torch into the arena, passing the flame to double Olympic champion speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan. She touched a torch held by NBA star Steve Nash, who lit a torch carried by ski racer Nancy Greene. She passed off to Gretzky, who received a huge ovation.

Despite the sensitivity from organizers, sliding athletes began to lay blame for the Georgian's death on the controversial decision of Canadian sport officials to restrict foreign athletes from extensive access to the notoriously difficult two-year-old track on which Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled. U.S. bobsled world champion Steven Holcomb unleashed his frustration before Team USA paraded in wearing navy jackets and white pants, blaming the lack of training opportunities for the tragedy.

"The track is difficult as it is, the speeds are higher than any other track in the world and there's nowhere to train for that," Holcomb said. "And while they're letting Canadians on to train as much as they want, you have smaller nations that have never been down before. It's kind of unfair, and now it's a tragedy. This could have been avoided.

"It's not like it's [just] the little guys crashing, it's the big dogs . . . It's a challenge for everybody . . . and now we have Olympic ice, which is going to be faster than ever. It makes it harder, and little mistakes become big mistakes, and big mistakes end in tragedy."

Added Holcomb: "I didn't know him personally, but we're all brothers, all sisters in this sport, in the sliding sports, so we lost a family member today. It's definitely overwhelming, a roller-coaster of emotions. I don't know how to react."

The International Olympic Committee announced in a statement released minutes after the ceremony's start that the Coroners Service of British Columbia and the RCMP would lead the investigation into Kumaritashvili's death, with Federation International de Luge undertaking a secondary investigation.

The Georgian's death was the most rattling of what have been a host of difficult issues the Canadians have faced this week. Friday's women's downhill training was canceled again at Whistler, pushing the start of the women's combined -- which would have been a marquee event for NBC's weekend telecast with U.S. star Lindsey Vonn in it -- until Monday at the earliest. It is unclear whether the men's downhill, which will feature controversial U.S. star Bode Miller, will go off as scheduled Saturday morning.

Earlier in the week, organizers trucked and flew in thousands of cubic meters of snow to Cypress Mountain, the site of the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, because of a historic lack of snowfall in the region. Vancouver experienced the warmest January since record-keeping began in 1937.

But officials hope the start of the Games will bring about a major mood shift.

Canada spent more than $110 million on its "Own the Podium" program, and another $552 million to build venues throughout the Vancouver and Whistler region. An additional $1.5 billion was allocated to run the Games.

All of that will surely seem worth it if Canada, which paraded in his red coats and scarves to a deafening ovation, can win the medal table as hoped.

"These Games are ours," said Marcel Aubut, president elect of the Canadian Olympic Committee, earlier this week. "We're going to own the podium."

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