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Death darkens festive mood

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.

other Updated: Feb 14, 2010 00:49 IST

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 honour 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 colours. Despite a few scuffles with police, there was no serious trouble.

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