Luge death darkens mood as Winter Games open

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By Brian Rhoads

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A Georgian luger died in a horrific crash on a training run on Friday, casting a shadow as Vancouver opened the Winter Games with a daredevil snowboarder, an aboriginal welcome, and Wayne Gretzky lighting the cauldron.

Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, was making his final practice slide before Saturday's competition when he lost control at 90 mph on the exit of the 16th corner, launched over the rim and slammed into an unpadded steel pillar.

The tragedy on a track which had already sparked controversy for its speed darkened a mood of celebration as Vancouver welcomed the world with the opening ceremony, held indoors in a first for the Winter Olympics.

The crowd cheered Georgia's national team, wearing black armbands, as they entered the arena for the parade of 3,000 athletes attending the Games. The audience later held a moment of silence to honor Kumaritashvili.

Earlier in the day, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, tears welling in his eyes and his voice cracking, struggled with his shock at the death of a young athlete competing at his first Olympics.

"I have no words to describe how we feel," said Rogge.

It was all so different on Friday morning in downtown Vancouver, where residents took to the streets to cheer on torch-bearers. Anti-Games protestors swapped chants with pro-Olympic fans, many decked out in Canadian colors. Despite a few scuffles with police, there was no serious trouble.

"Shame, Canada, Shame" and "No Olympics on stolen native land" were among slogans chanted by several hundred protesters.

Ice hockey great Gretzky, after a brief delay, lit the permanent Olympic cauldron, ending speculation on who would have the honor.

The night began with film of a lone snowboarder atop a snow-covered peak, then descending through a huge flare-lit Canadian maple leaf before turning to a live leap through the Olympic rings inside the venue. The native Indian, Inuit and Metis indigenous to Canada then took to the stage.


Still, the weather has not been kind to Vancouver. Relentless rain and fog threatened postponement of Saturday's men's downhill, the premier event in Olympic Alpine skiing. Race director Guenther Hujara said on Friday it would be put off unless the course condition improved significantly.

The opening women's skiing event, the super-combined scheduled for Sunday, was postponed.

The delay may benefit U.S. big hope Lindsey Vonn, who arrived in Vancouver worried that a bruised shin might stop her going for five gold medals. In good news for fans, her husband said she was getting better all the time.

Kumaritashvili's crash at a Whistler track regarded as the fastest in the world came the day after a luge federation official told Reuters that sliding tracks needed to be slowed down.

The IOC suspended training and launched an investigation but later reopened the track saying the crash was caused by an error from Kumaritashvili on the previous bend.

Men's training will resume on Saturday morning with the competition scheduled to start at 1700 local time.

"We are heartbroken beyond words," Furlong said. "This athlete came to Canada with hopes and dreams that this would be a magnificent occasion in his life.

"I am told by members of his delegation that he was an incredibly spirited person. He came here to experience what being an Olympian was."

Georgia's Minister for Sport and Culture said the team would compete in the Games out of respect for their 'fallen comrade'.

In what felt like a tribute for Kumaritashvili, the BC Place arena was crammed full of people to see the symbolic cauldron brought to life by a host of Canadian athletes before Gretzky, known as the Great One, lit the permanent version on the Vancouver waterfront.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Fylan, editing by Jon Bramley)