Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Olympics kick off Friday night

VANCOUVER - In time-honored tradition, the show went on.

Hours after a luger from the country of Georgia was killed in a 90-mph training-run crash, the Olympics' opening ceremonies were launched Friday night with a jubilant countdown by the crowd filling BC Place Stadium.

The festive mood, and the opening act of a snowboarder's leap through giant Olympic rings, contrasted sharply with the grief that befell the games earlier in the day when 21-year-old luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrific crash on the sliding track at Whistler.

On Saturday, international luge officials announced they would move the start of the men's Olympic luge competition farther down the track. It was a decision made with the “emotional component” of athletes in mind following the death of a Mr. Kumaritashvili.

Men's training on Saturday morning, as well as all four runs of the men's competition that begins later, will take place from the women's start ramp.

The move means speeds will be a bit lower at the Whistler Sliding Track. It likely also means the course will be a bit easier to navigate.

American luger Tony Benshoof navigated the 16 turns without incident.

The ceremonies were dedicated to Mr. Kumaritashvili, who was in his first Olympics. The seven other members of the Georgian delegation, who decided to stay and compete, wore black armbands as they marched behind a black-trimmed flag. Spectators, Olympic officials, and competitors stood and saluted them with respectful applause. There were also plans to lower the Olympic and Canadian flags to half staff.

More than 50,000 ticketholders packed into the stadium for the evening extravaganza, the first Olympic opening or closing ceremony ever held indoors.

According to program, the opening ceremony was to climax with the Olympic cauldron being lit jointly by four Canadian sports heroes - hockey great Wayne Gretzky, skier Nancy Greene, speedskater Katrina LeMay Doan, and basketball star Steve Nash.

Later, a second, far larger cauldron was to be lit in a plaza along the downtown waterfront - giving Vancouver a visible symbol for the rest of the games that the indoor stadium could not provide.

About 2,500 athletes from a record 82 countries are participating in the games, vying for medals in 86 events.

The Canadian team was the last contingent in the parade of nations at last night's ceremony, marching behind flagbearer Clara Hughes, defending gold medalist in the 5,000-meter speedskating race.

Just ahead of them in the parade were the Americans. Their flagbearer was Mark Grimmette, 39, of Muskegon, Mich., competing in his fifth Olympics as a doubles luge competitor.

U.S. team officials said Grimmette would wear a Georgian pin in honor of Kumaritashvili, who would have been one of his Olympic rivals.

Several well-known Canadians received the honor of carrying the Olympic flag at a high-profile moment near the end of the ceremony. Among them were hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, singer Anne Murray, and race car driver Jacques Villeneuve.

But Kumaritashvili's death cast a shadow of grief over the festivities.

"Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion," said a clearly shaken IOC President Jacques Rogge. "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."

Mr. Rogge said he was in contact with Kumaritashvili's family - the slider's father is president of the Georgian luge federation and his cousin is the team's coach, officials said.

News of the crash filtered down from the mountains as the Olympic flame was making its way past cheering crowds through Vancouver's streets.

"When we get here, we're all part of the same family. It's definitely affected everyone here," U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White said.

It was the first time since 1992 in Albertville, France, that a Winter Olympian had died in training, and the fourth time ever. Death also haunted the last games hosted by Canada - in 1988, when an Austrian team doctor fell under a snow machine in Calgary.

Rushing down the track at speeds up to 90 mph, Kumaritashvili got into trouble when he took the next-to-last curve at a higher path than most lugers would prefer and careened up the banked, icy wall. He slid diagonally down the wall with his feet pointed the wrong way. As he hit the corner entering the final straightaway with his body, he was knocked off his sled and shot across the track, arms and legs flailing.

Less than a second later, Kumaritashvili's upper body struck a steel post in place to hold up a metal roof along the end of the track. He came to rest on a metal walkway, his left leg in the air and left foot propped atop the track wall.

Rescue workers got to him within seconds and began lifesaving efforts, but Kumaritashvili died shortly afterward at a nearby hospital.

In an inherently dangerous sport - one that sends supine athletes on sleds down a twisting, ice-packed track - Whistler's was known as probably the fastest in the world, and crashes had already marred the days leading up to competition.

Earlier Friday, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler came off his sled and had to hold it with his left arm just to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.

Athletes had raised concerns about the safety of the track. Australian Hannah Campbell-Pegg went so far as to wonder aloud, a day before the fatal crash, whether lugers were being made into "crash-test dummies" thrown down the course.

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