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BILL PLASCHKE

Winter Games show goes on, uncomfortably, after athlete's death

The Vancouver Olympics must jarringly switch gears to stage a joyous opening ceremony hours after a Georgian luge competitor is killed in a training-run crash. Setting the proper tone proves difficult.

February 13, 2010|Bill Plaschke

From Vancouver, Canada — There was skidding, sailing, a man flying off the edge of an icy track, his body crumpling on a metal walkway, a lifeless leg dangling in the air.

There was a glittering floating grizzly, a snowboarder flying under giant glowing rings, beaming athletes marching under giant wool hats.

Death came to the Olympics. Life came to the Olympics . It all happened on the same day Friday, the quadrennial winter celebration sliding out of the starting gate in staggering, breathless uncertainty.

Oh no, Canada.

On Friday morning, two hours north of here, Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from the Republic of Georgia, was thrown off his sled during a training run, struck an un-padded metal pole, and died.

Hours later, the Games that tragically took his life were being gloriously born in a BC Place stadium filled with white confetti raining from the ceiling like snow, tiny lights bouncing through the crowd like icicles, and the outside caldron being lighted by that former Los Angeles King named Wayne Gretzky.

As quick as a gasp, the Olympics went from horror to songs of hope from Sarah McLachlan, from the gruesome crash video to the special effects of whales swimming under the floor and giant maple leafs falling from the sky.

It was grim. It was quaint. It was sadly confusing, culminating in Kumaritashvili's teammates marching, bewildered, into an arena of joy during the parade of athletes, a standing ovation for the somber remaining 11 Georgians, the music never stopping.

"Your moment is here. . . . Set aside your fears," sang the Canadian Tenors, echoing one of the Games' anthems.

Yet on this night, with the reality of death circling the Olympic fantasy like a sixth ring, they were only half right.

In a news conference several hours before the ceremony, shortly after learning of Kumaritashvili's death, the stoic Olympic boss, Jacques Rogge, took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes and fought back tears.

"It is a time of sorrow," he said.

Later, in a stadium staging the first indoor opening ceremony in the Winter Olympics' 86-year history, sorrow quickly gave way to drumbeats and dancing, the death initially a brief mention on a giant scoreboard.

"Tonight's ceremony is dedicated to the memory of Georgian Olympic athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili," it read.

Moments later, trumpets sounded and the celebration began, Canada showing its quaint and sweatered best with the ramblings of a beat poet, the tapping of tattooed fiddlers and even a flying farm boy.

The ceremony also included the odd sight of athletes in wool caps and scarves walking into an arena where it was comfortable enough to wear short sleeves. But nothing was stranger than the feeling of attending a party on the night of a wake.

Near the end of the ceremony, Rogge began his address by remembering Kumaritashvili's passing, saying, "We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, his friends, his teammates and countrymen."

Later there was a moment of silence for the fallen luger while the Canadian and Olympic flags were pulled to half staff. The reverence was overpowering. The crowd's sensitivity was apparent. It was a night for Canada. But it was not Canada's night.

The third death of an athlete in Winter Olympic history had just happened on their home turf, on their allegedly dangerous sliding track, after participants had earlier warned of its dangers.

"I think they are pushing it a little too much," Australian slider Hannah Campbell-Pegg told reporters Thursday after seeing numerous competitors crash. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."

The danger of the course was increased by the Canadians' unwillingness to allow foreign competitors to train on it before they arrived for the Games. Going against both Olympic tradition and national reputation, the Canadians had refused to allow anyone else to get familiar with their Winter Olympics venues in hopes of keeping a home-court advantage.

Having not won any gold medals in the previous two Olympics to which they played host, the Canadians were admittedly not taking any chances.

"I think it shows a lack of sportsmanship," said Don Rossi, executive director of U.S. luge, to the New York Times last fall.

Not even Friday's official welcome by colorfully clad aboriginals, who seemingly danced through the entire lengthy athletes' parade, could answer those questions.

On a night when Canada showed the world the warmth of its embrace, the question remains, what is it going to do about the death on its track?

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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