Winter Olympics: Luge death, bad weather dim opening ceremony mood
AP National Writer
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The show goes on.
The mood in the Olympic world was far from what organizers had hoped heading into Friday's opening ceremony. The death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili from the country of Georgia after a horrific training-run crash assured a muted and distraught start to the Vancouver Games.
"This is a very sad day," said a visibly shaken Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. "The IOC is in deep mourning."
While protesters and rain clouds gathered outside, ticketholders began to fill Vancouver's BC Place Stadium for the evening extravaganza, the first Olympic opening or closing ceremony ever held indoors. Rain was forecast through the weekend in the city, with high temperatures near 50 degrees, prompting some to dub these the Spring Olympics.
The luger's death was expected to be observed during the ceremony — a somber addition to a show that was to feature big-name talent, an expected spine-tingling ending, and an exultant roar for the Canadian team, whose not-so-impossible dream is to win the medals race.
It was uncertain whether Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who is in Vancouver, would attend the opening ceremony, according to Zurab Darchiashvili, head of Georgia's office of protocol.
About 2,500 athletes from a record 82 countries are participating in the games, vying for medals in 86 events — including the newly added ski-cross competition. First-time Winter Olympic participants include the Cayman Islands, Columbia, Ghana, Montenegro, Pakistan, Peru and Serbia.
The overall favorites include Germany and the United States — which finished first and second four years ago in Turin — and also Canada, a best-ever third in 2006 and now brashly proclaiming its intention to finish atop the medals table on its home turf.
"We're still going to be nice, but we're going to be nice in winning," said Michael Chambers, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
The Canadian team was scheduled to be the last contingent in the parade of nations at Friday's ceremony, marching behind flagbearer Clara Hughes, defending gold medalist in the 5,000- meter speedskating race.
Just ahead in the parade will be the Americans. Their flagbearer is Mark Grimmette, 39, of Muskegon, Mich., competing in his fifth Olympics as a doubles luge competitor.
The ceremony was expected to feature many of Canada's best-known musical stars. Based on leaks from rehearsals, and other reports, performers were expected to include Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan, k.d. lang and possibly Celine Dion.
The rehearsal leaks swiftly spawned a mini-controversy, with some Canadians outraged at a juiced-up version of "O Canada," the national anthem.
The cultural segment of the show was expected to highlight performers and traditions from Canada's aboriginal communities. And the highest-ranking official delegation at the ceremony — amid dignitaries from around the world — was to include the four chiefs of the First Nations whose traditional native territory overlaps the Olympic region.
Still a well-guarded secret was the identify of the final torchbearer who would light the Olympic cauldron at the close of the two-and-a-half-hour ceremony.
Many Canadians were hoping it would be hockey great Wayne Gretzky, perhaps accompanied by one or two other icons from the nation's beloved sport. But there also was intense speculation that the ending might feature Betty Fox, mother of national hero Terry Fox.
Terry Fox lost a leg to bone cancer as a youngster, then set off in 1980 on a fundraising trek across Canada. He had to give up after covering more than 3,000 miles, and died in 1981 at age 22, but remains revered by his compatriots as a symbol of courage and perseverance.
Under one widely circulated scenario, Betty Fox would be accompanied by a hologram of her son as the cauldron is lit.
The flame reached the stadium after a 106-day torch relay across Canada, passing through more than 1,000 communities in every province and territory.
The relay was the occasional target for protesters, and Friday was no exception.
Activists espousing a variety of causes prompted the relay to change course twice as it passed near Vancouver's skid-row neighborhood, the Downtown Eastside.
"The Olympics have done more damage than good," protest leader Lauren Gill said. "But one positive is the world getting to see what Vancouver really is. Downtown Eastside is an international model of disaster."