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Ceremony offers break from already troubled Games

Fri., Feb. 12, 2010, 7:36 p.m.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — With the din of Canada’s pride careening through domed BC Place like a Rocky Mountain storm, the 2010 Winter Olympics began Friday night with history’s first indoor opening ceremonies, a laser-lit spectacle that — for a few hours anyway — obscured the troubles already besetting these Games.

Earlier on a day they had anticipated for nearly a decade, another unusually warm and rainy one in a spring-like Vancouver winter, local organizers suffered a devastating blow. A Georgian sledder died in a violent crash during a practice run on the perilous luge course at Whistler. Nodar Kumaritashvili was the third competitor to die at a Winter Games, the first since 1992.

“This clearly casts a shadow over these Games,” said a tearful Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

So even before a single medal had been awarded at the XXI Winter Olympiad, which will conclude Feb. 28, officials here have had to cope with an athlete’s death, a maddening lack of snow, and the daunting challenge of following the spectacular Beijing Olympics.

Vancouver officials did their best to downplay the inevitable comparisons to those 2008 Games, noting that the opening ceremonies’ theme would be appropriate for such a young nation.

“Austrians can talk about Mozart, and the Korean culture goes back 10,000 years,” said John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC). “We’re trying to communicate the culture of tomorrow, the future, a young country. What we’ve been trying to do is really evolve that idea of the culture of the 21st century; why does Canada work? And to try to represent all of what Canada is culturally.”

Friday night’s show and the ensuing entrance of 2,500-plus athletes from 82 nations might not have matched China’s breathtaking kickoff, but it clearly delighted the 60,600 people inside the downtown football stadium, a majority of them wearing the national colors of red and white and waving the maple-leaf flag.

Greece, as usual, led the parade, and Canada, with speedskater Clara Hughes carrying the flag, marched in last.

The U.S. team, whose banner was lifted by luger Mark Grimmette, came in two nations from the end of the pack, a position that didn’t diminish the thrill the Americans derived from this sporting ritual.

“I took a 6 a.m. flight to get here, said American hockey player Jack Johnson. “I chartered a flight with my mom and dad and brother. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. Once in a lifetime.”

Political leaders from around the world, including Georgia’s president, were in the stadium. Among them was Vice President Biden, who met with the U.S. delegation earlier.

“You,” Biden told the 216 athletes, “will be the face of America for the next few weeks.”

One mystery was solved when it was revealed that the other seven athletes on the Georgian team would march and compete.

“We cannot leave now,” chef de mission Irakli Japaridze told the Toronto Star. “This is a shock, a big tragedy, but we are going to stay.”

Just before the ceremonies began, an announcement was made dedicating them to Kumaritashvili’s memory.

Beyond that, the crowd and an expected 3.5 billion TV viewers around the world were eager to see who would light the Olympic cauldron at the ceremonies’ conclusion.

Organizers denied the widespread speculation that it would be hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. That immediately shifted the focus to Betty Fox, the mother of Vancouver native Terry Fox.

Fox, who died in 1981 and is honored with a statue outside BC Place, ran across Canada in the 1970s, raising millions for cancer research. His mother has carried on his work.

The crowd inside the building that is home to the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions wore white parkas that they were given. The effect was to transform BC Place into a snow land.

Curiously real snow has been as easy to conjure. Tons of it had to be shipped into nearby Cypress Mountain, where snowboarding and aerials are scheduled. A complete lack of snow there has confounded organizers and meteorologists alike.

Canada’s aboriginal people were honored — and performed in — the show’s opening sequence, dancing in traditional costumes beneath four gigantic ice-like totem poles.

For the host nation, the goal at this third Canadian Olympics is clear. No native athlete won a gold medal at either Montreal in 1976 or Calgary in 1988, the only time that has happened in the modern movement’s 114-year history.

In an effort to remedy that international embarrassment, the government has invested $66 million in a sports-development program called “Own the Podium.”

Canadian athletes figure to contend in men’s hockey and figure-skating, both freestyle and alpine skiing, and curling. Nonetheless, they will face stern competition from traditional winter powers like Germany, Russia, Norway, Sweden and the U.S.

Germany led the medal count at the 2006 Games in Turin, with the U.S. second, four behind.

This American team might represent the nation’s deepest winter team ever.

In addition to their anticipated success in the skating disciplines and the X-Games sports of snowboarding, aerials and moguls, U.S. athletes are expected to compete in several sports where they’ve typically been also-rans — Nordic combined, men’s bobsledding and biathlon.

Minnesota-born skier Lindsay Vonn was expected to be the golden girl of these Games, but a serious shin injury suffered a week ago in Europe could make the blonde 25-year-old vulnerable in — or even absent from — some of the five events she had planned to enter.

Seven nations made their Winter Olympics debut Friday night, the Cayman Islands, Colombia, Ghana, Montenegro, Pakistan, Peru and Serbia.

But overshadowing everything, like the black clouds that hung ominously over BC Place all afternoon, was the death of the Georgian luger.

“We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here,” said Furlong. “It’s not something that I had prepared for, or ever thought I would need to be prepared for.”

The Georgian team wore black armbands and received a stirring ovation from the gathering.

In 1992, at Albertville, Nicholas Bochatay of Switzerland died after crashing into a snow grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport of speed skiing on the next-to-last day of the Games.

Australian skier Ross Milne died when he struck a tree during a training run shortly before the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck. British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki also died during training in Innsbruck.

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