Latest News

Olympics opening ceremony dedicated to Georgian luger

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — This wasn't how organizers envisioned the opening day of the 2010 Winter Olympics — with a death on the luge track, steady rain, protests along the torch relay route and the postponement of Sunday's women's alpine event due to slushy conditions on Whistler Mountain.

But for two and a half hours Friday night, the genial can-do Canadians tried to put the troubles aside and celebrate their heritage and the Olympic spirit in front of an estimated worldwide television audience of 3 billion.

They shed their red-knitted Olympic mittens and coats when they entered BC Place, the first-ever indoor venue for an Opening Ceremonies, settled into their 60,000 seats and put on white ponchos. They then began to wave maple leaf flags and flashlights as confetti rained down.

Once the clock struck 6 p.m., it was party time. The show must go on. A snowboarder leaped through giant Olympic rings at one end of the stadium and slid down a ramp to kick off the celebration. The entire field was converted into a white stage of artificial snow, which seemed only appropriate considering snow had to be airlifted in to Cypress Mountain for snowboarding and freestyle skiing because of the unseasonably warm weather this winter.

Four giant Welcome Poles were erected in the center of the stadium in a tribute to the Four Nations of the Northwest and the Aboriginal people of Canada. Native Canadian dancers and drummers performed throughout the parade of nations.

The themes of the night ranged from Canadian wildlife to the nation's love of winter sports. Among the musicians who performed in the show were Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan, kd Lang and Joni Mitchell.

Just before the start of the festivities, the scoreboards in the domed football stadium went black, and then a message popped up that read: "Dedicated to the memory of Georgia Olympic athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili." The 21-year-old luger died Friday morning in a horrific crash during his final training run. Olympic and Canadian flags were scheduled to be lowered to half-mast at the conclusion of the ceremony in his memory.

The Georgia delegation wore black scarves and black arm bands during the parade of nations and had a black patch on their flag. Georgian athletes and officials had their heads hung low, some were on the verge of tears, and they were clearly grieving as the rest of the 2,500 jubilant athletes celebrated their special moment.

The Olympic flagbearers included hockey legend Bobby Orr; singer Anne Murray; race car driver Jacques Villeneuve; Barbara Ann Scott-King, Canada's 1948 Olympic gold medalist figure skater; actor Donald Sutherland; astronaut Julie Payette; and Betty Fox, mother of cancer activist Terry Fox.

Fox lost a leg to bone cancer as a youngster, then set off in 1980 on a fundraising marathon across Canada. His health forced him to give up after covering more than 3,000 miles and he died in 1981 at age 22. He remains a hero across Canada.

Luger Mark Grimmette, a five-time Olympian from Muskegon, Mich., carried the American flag ahead of the U.S. delegation. He wore a Georgia pin in memory of Kumaritashvili, who would have been a competitor of his. Grimmette said he was shocked to learn from his doubles partner, Brian Martin, that he had been selected by all of the team captains.

"When Brian came out of the room, he was walking up to me, he was shaking a little bit, smiling, and he said, 'You're going to carry the flag,' " Grimmette said. "I was pretty floored. This team is made up of a lot of great men and women, and to be voted in to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony is a great honor."

Among the other 81 national flagbearers were hockey players Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic), Alexei Morozov (Russia) and Peter Forsberg (Sweden). The Canadian team entered the stadium last to a roar from the crowd.

The host athletes were led by speedskater and cyclist Clara Hughes. She is the only athlete to win multiple Olympic medals at both the Summer and Winter Games, and her career has spanned five Olympic Games.

The show ended with the Olympic cauldron being lit jointly by four Canadian sports heroes — all-time hockey great Wayne Gretzky, skier Nancy Greene, speedskater Katrina LeMay Doan and basketball All-Star Steve Nash.

A record 82 countries are participating in the Games, vying for medals in 86 events. First-time Winter Olympic participants include the Cayman Islands, Colombia, Ghana, Montenegro, Pakistan, Peru and Serbia.

Kaufman reports for the Miami Herald

Related stories from Bradenton Herald