Canada breaks jinx as French also strike gold

By Janet Guttsman

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada broke the jinx that has cursed it for three home-turf Olympic Games on Sunday with a gold medal in men's moguls skiing, triggering an outpouring of elation from a country that almost thought it couldn't win.

"I don't think I realize it yet -- it's too good to be true," an elated Alexandre Bilodeau said after his freestyle win. "The party's just starting for Canada."

Bilodeau's win came near the end of Day Two of the Olympic competition, and a day before Alpine skiing is finally scheduled to get under way after a weekend of delays triggered by persistent rain and fog.

It followed a brace of golds for France, in Nordic Combined and biathlon, and a gold-silver placing for Germany in the men's luge, on a shortened version of the controversial track where Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili died on Friday.

The clouds lifted, bringing bright sun and blue skies, and unveiling snow-topped peaks across the water from Vancouver.

But it was the moguls win that caught the attention of Canadians, who have responded to the Games with uncharacteristic outbursts of patriotic zeal.

Bilodeau's win triggered roars of applause from a sea of spectators, most of whom seemed to be wearing the $10 red woolen mittens that have become Canada's best-known souvenir. The mitts, lined with fleece, have the Olympic rings on the outside, and Canada's maple leaf emblem in white on the palm.

Canada had hosted two previous Olympics -- the Montreal Summer Games in 1976, and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988 -- and had not won gold at either.

FRANCE TOP

Alpine skiing would normally have been the highlight of the first weekend of the Winter Olympics, but events have fallen victim to the unpredictable weather.

The blue riband men's downhill, originally scheduled for Saturday, is now set to take place at 1830GMT on Monday in the mountain resort of Whistler, a two-hour ride from Vancouver along the spectacular Sea to Sky highway.

"We are still more than convinced than we will deliver a race tomorrow," said race director Guenther Hujara.

With almost two more weeks to go in the competition, it's early days to be counting medals, but France climbed to the top of the table with Sunday's two golds.

Its surprise winner was soldier Vincent Jay, who took advantage of an early start in the 10km biathlon sprint to win by 12.2 seconds. Jay skied while weather conditions were good, while those later in the line-up faced driving, wet snow.

Jason Lamy Chappuis won France's second gold after a scintillating sprint finish in the Nordic Combined individual normal hill cross country event.

Felix Loch, a 20-year-old police officer, extended Germany's fine tradition in the luge by becoming the event's youngest ever winner. Compatriot David Moeller completed a 1-2.

Organizers said Kumaritashvili was to blame for Friday's accident -- he flew off his sled coming out of a corner and slammed into a pillar.

But they still shortened the men's course, raised the lip of the track and put padding round pillars at the side of the super-fast course where Kumaritashvili perished.

The start for the women's race was moved lower still, prompting grumbling from Germany's Natalie Geisenberger that the competition had been turned into a "kids' race."

CZECH GOLD

Back in Vancouver, Czech skater Martina Sablikova won the women's 3,000-meter speed skating as Canadian hopefuls Clara Hughes and Cindy Klassen faded and Kristina Groves mustered just enough speed for the bronze.

Tens of thousands of people without tickets to the Games flooded to the waterfront for a glimpse of the cauldron, only to complain bitterly that the shiny metal structure was too hard to see.

Instead of a clear view of the cauldron against a backdrop of snow-topped mountains -- the picture postcard image from television shots -- visitors saw packed streets, disappointed crowds, and a chain-link fence.

Officials said they were looking at the possibility of replacing the fence, which has a big "No Trespassing" sign on it that further blocks the view of the cauldron, with something less unsightly.

(Editing by Miles Evans)