Athlete's death overshadows opening of Olympics

But decision of Georgian team not to pull out gives a boost to Winter Games hit by technological breakdown and a lack of snow
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The Independent Online

Heavy rain made snow too slushy to ski on as the 2010 Winter Olympics made a stuttering start in Vancouver yesterday under the pall of the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

The Georgian luger, 21, was killed during training on Friday after flipping off the track at the Whistler Sliding Center and crashing into an unpadded steel pole at 90 miles per hour. Safety concerns had been raised before the accident with a dozen competitors crashing on practice runs.

Georgia's Olympic team initially considered pulling out of the Games but the country's culture minister, Nikolos Rurua, said yesterday: "Our athletes decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games and they will compete and dedicate their performance to their fallen comrade."

The US Vice-President, Joe Biden said: "This is a nation that has gone through an awful lot in the last three, four years. It's a small nation of five million people and they had pride in representing their country here at the Olympics and now to suffer this loss is just tragic."

Tributes were paid to Kumaritashvili during a muted opening ceremony which strove to combine sombre reflection with celebration, only to suffer from an embarrassing technical hitch.

Four pillars were meant to appear from out of the ground in the BC Stadium so that they could be lit with the Olympic flame, but due to a mechanical malfunction only three rose to the occasion. As flustered organisers looked on, the Canadian speed skater Catriona Le May Doan was left with nothing to light.

The Olympic torch had only just made it to the stadium after protesters tried to block its way. Mounted police changed the route to avoid clashes in the street.

In a city showing little sign of the authorities having got a grip on chronic homelessness and drug addiction, two out of three Vancouverites think the £5bn expense of the Games is hard to justify and the angriest residents tried to disrupt the celebrations.

All this while, in the distance, Cypress Mountain mocks the organisers with its lack of the main ingredient for any winter Games: Snow.

The missing white stuff, which is absent due to unseasonably mild weather and a lack of blizzards throughout January, has meant hundreds of thousands of tons of snow being trucked and airlifted from higher climes.

Yesterday heavy rain soaked the slopes, making conditions too slushy for races, including the men's downhill alpine ski, to go ahead. It is supposed to be a glamour event to give the Winter Olympics a big kick-off but is now unlikely to be run until tomorrow. The women's event has also been delayed and training runs on the slopes have been cancelled.

The good news for organisers is that the 1.6 million tickets for the Games have virtually sold out and 60,000 people turned out for the opening ceremony. There was a slower uptake in Turin, Italy, four years ago.

John Furlong, the chief executive of the Vancouver Olympic Organising Committee, acknowledged that the shadow of Kumaritashvili's death hung over the Games but said the way the athletes had responded had given everyone "a lift".

He said: "Hopefully as the sporting events begin, the athletes will feed off this energy and we will have extraordinary competition and lots of thrills before the Games are over."