VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old Georgian luger, died in a horrific crash on a training run on Friday, casting a pall over the Winter Olympics hours before the Games were to be declared open.
Kumaritashvili slammed into a pillar at 90 mph after being thrown off the sled as it bounced over the rim on the 16th and final bend of the lightning fast track at the Whistler Sliding Center.
The tragedy darkened a mood that had been one of celebration, as Vancouver prepared to welcome the world on the day of the opening ceremony, to be held indoors in a first for the Winter Olympics.
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, tears welling in his eyes and his voice cracking, had trouble expressing 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, who confirmed that Georgia is considering the country’s participation in the Games.
It was all so different on Friday morning in downtown Vancouver, where residents took to the streets to cheer on torch-bearers.
Small groups of anti-Games protestors swapped chants with pro-Olympic fans, many decked out in Canadian colors, but there was no serious trouble.
Speculation was rife about who would be given the honor of lighting the cauldron at the ceremony, with many tipping Wayne Gretzky as the man most likely after the former ice hockey great was spotted in the city this week.
The other two concerns prior to the official opening were Lindsey Vonn’s bruised shin and the fog and rain that was wreaking havoc with the Alpine skiing downhill training sessions.
Vonn arrived worried that a bruised shin might stop her going for five gold medals in Alpine skiing but there was good news for her many fans on Friday as her husband revealed she was getting better all the time.
Vonn’s cause was helped by the unrelentingly bad weather up in Whistler.
The opening women’s skiing event, the super-combined scheduled for Sunday, has been postponed, with no time to complete the necessary training run.
The damp and foggy weather also meant the final men’s downhill training run was canceled.
Kumaritashvili’s crash at a Whistler track regarded as the fastest in the world came the day after a luge federation official had told Reuters that sliding tracks needed to be slowed down.
Training was suspended immediately after the crash, which made for unbearable viewing, and the IOC said an inquiry was under way.
Like Rogge, Vancouver Games chief John Furlong had to fight back tears as he spoke of the death of Kumaritashvili, whose father is the head of the Georgia Luge Federation.
“We are heartbroken beyond words,” Furlong said. “This athlete came to Canada with hopes and dreams that this would be a magnificent occasion in his life. I am told by members of his delegation that he was an incredibly spirited person. He came here to experience what being an Olympian was.”
Despite the tragedy, the Games will go on and the BC Place arena will be crammed full of people there to see the cauldron brought to life by the final, as yet unidentified, torch-bearer.
It will feel like a tribute for Kumaritashvili.
Editing by Miles Evans