Snow business battles odds to counter nightmare start

The death of a luger, demonstrations, bad weather and glitches test organisers
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The Independent Online

The Vancouver Organising Committee could be forgiven for wanting to start the Games all over again. Everything from the weather to the complex contraption designed to present the Olympic flame to the world has caused problems and even before the opening ceremony on Friday night the Games had been tarnished by the death of a luger on the controversial run at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

The Olympics is becoming a painful, emotionally testing experience for Georgians. During the Summer Games in Beijing two years ago, their country was at war with Russia; here they considered withdrawing but opted to stay after deciding it was better to honour Nodar Kumaritashvili, their 21-year-old luger, who was killed in a horrendous training accident on Friday, by staying to compete. Wearing black armbands and scarves as they marched into BC Stadium for the opening ceremony, they trimmed their national flag with black, too.

The ceremony was somber – dedicated to Kumaritashvili – and when it reached its climax Wayne Gretzky, the ice hockey great, stood bemused with his fellow torch bearers as the legs of the cauldron they were supposed to light to spark the flame failed to emerged from under a panel in the ground. Finally three legs popped up and the flame was lit. But even getting the flame to Gretzky et al had not been straightforward because hundreds of protesters forced the final stages of the 106-day torch relay across Canada to take a detour.

It was not the first time it had attracted protesters supporting a variety of causes. Several thousand protesters marched to the stadium, where hundreds of police were waiting for them. A standoff lasted more than two hours – with some sticks and water bottles thrown toward the officers.

With the three-hour show finally complete, the problems for the organisers were not over. Warm weather had complicated preparation of the ski pistes and had meant snow having to be brought in. But then rain swept in again and turned the pistes mushy, forcing the postponement of the blue riband event, the men's downhill, until tomorrow. the women's super-combined, which had been due to start today, has been put back to Friday.

The run at Whistler, being used for the luge, bobsleigh and skeleton events, has sparked controversy because of its bold design. Opened two years ago, it has a vertical drop of 152 metres – an average of 28m more than other tracks – and that contributes to a top speed reached on descent of almost 96mph, and an average speed 15mph quicker than other tracks.

Organisers insist that is fast but not dangerous and that it was not responsible for Kumaritashvili's death. Neverthess the International Luge Federation has announced that there will be changes to the track and the wall at curve 16, which the Georgian was hurled over before hitting a pillar after losing control of his sled, will be made higher. As a further safety measure when training resumed yesterday, the men set off from the lower start meant for women's and doubles events, which will begin lower still at a point yet to be determined.

There was welcome backing for the organisers from Georg Hackl, the three-time Olympic champion, who told a German newspaper that the death had nothing to do with speed and that even a crash at less than 40mph could be fatal. He said that Kumaritashvili had made a "tiny driving error". Hackl, who at 43 has retired, said: "It's a track that is faster than all other tracks we know. It's a challenge for all athletes to master that track and they have made it, including the Georgian until that tiny driving error."

At the opening ceremony, where more than 60,000 people packed into the stadium for the first Olympic opening or closing ceremony ever held indoors, John Furlong, the chief executive of the Vancouver Organising Committee, urged the athletes to honour the Georgian luger at the Games.

Today's events (all UK time)

6pm Nordic combined Individual, ski jumping

7.15pm Biathlon Men's 10 km sprint

8pm Ice hockey US v China, women's preliminary round

9pm Luge Men's singles

9pm Speed skating Women's 3,000m

9.45pm Nordic combined Individual 10 km cross-country

10.30pm Freestyle skiing Men's moguls qualification

11.10pm Luge Men's singles

0.30am Monday Figure skating Pairs short programme

0.30am Ice hockey Finland vs Russian, women's preliminary round

1.30am Freestyle skiing Men's moguls, final