Gold in hand, let the Vancouver party begin

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By Steve Keating

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Vancouver exploded in wild celebration and exhaled a huge sigh of relief on Sunday after moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau became the first Canadian to strike Olympic gold at home.

Denied a place at the top of the podium at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and again at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Bilodeau finally delivered the golden moment Canadians had long craved, touching off a night of revelry while driving a nail into talk of a Canadian Olympic curse.

"We came down here because we think the Olympic rings floating in the harbor will turn gold tonight," said Laurie Harnett as she and her husband Frank walked toward the Olympic flame burning on the Vancouver waterfront. "It was just awesome."

"I almost couldn't watch," added her husband, wearing a Canadian Olympic hockey jersey."

Gold fever and unseasonably warm weather pulled thousands of Vancouverites and Olympic visitors into the downtown core packing streets and turning Robson Square into party central.

At the Royal Canadian Mint pavilion a queue of people snaked its way up Granville Street as thousands waited patiently for up to four hours for a chance to hold an Olympic gold medal on home soil -- something no Canadian had been able to claim until Bilodeau ended the drought.

"It's been like this for seven hours," said Mint employee Tony Proske. "We've been packing them in all day. People just want to touch the Olympic medals."

Around the corner thousands more were lined up outside the official Olympic outlet while others jammed cafes and bars or any place with television to watch the men's moguls final.

A day rich with anticipation and anxiety reached a climax when a roar swept across the Olympic city when Frenchman Guilbaut Colas, the top finisher in the qualifying round and the last man onto the course, could not beat Bilodeau's score.

Groups of people waving Canadian flags and wearing red wool Olympic mittens raced up and down the streets screaming "Canada gold, Canada gold."

At the Olympic cauldron, its flames glowing orange against Vancouver's first blue sky since the rain-dogged Games began; people hugged and happily took pictures of each other. A few, overcome by the moment, even shed a tear.

But just as quickly as the party started it was over, the cheers giving way to smiles that hinted at relief more than excitement.

Having won the elusive gold medal, the focus will now shift to Canada's larger and more ambitious objective of finishing the Vancouver Games top of the final medal table.

"Now we can kick ass," said one reveler and his friend waving a large Canadian flag as they made their way up Granville Streets to cheers.

(Editing by Miles Evans; To query or comment on this story email