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death darkens Games opening

A Georgian luger died in a horrific crash on a training run yesterday, casting a shadow as Vancouver opened the Winter Games with a daredevil snowboarder, an aboriginal welcome, and ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky lighting the cauldron.

Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, was making his final practice slide before Saturday's competition when he lost control at 90mph on the exit of the 16th corner, launched over the rim and slammed into an unpadded steel pillar.

The tragedy, on a track which had already sparked controversy for its speed, darkened a mood of celebration as Vancouver welcomed the world with the opening ceremony, held indoors in a first for the Winter Olympics. The crowd cheered Georgia's national team, wearing black armbands, as they entered the arena for the parade of 3,000 athletes attending the Games. The audience later held a moment of silence to honour Kumaritashvili. Earlier in the day International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, tears welling in his eyes and his voice cracking, struggled with 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.

It was all so different yesterday morning in downtown Vancouver, where residents took to the streets to cheer on torchbearers. Anti-Games protesters swapped chants with pro-Olympic fans, many decked out in Canadian colours. Despite a few scuffles with police, there was no serious trouble.

"Shame, Canada, Shame" and "No Olympics on stolen native land" were among slogans chanted by several hundred protesters.

Ice hockey great Gretzky lit the permanent Olympic cauldron, ending speculation on who would have the honour. The night began with film of a lone snowboarder atop a snow-covered peak, then descending through a flare-lit Canadian maple leaf before turning to a live leap through the Olympic rings inside the venue. The Indian, Inuit and Metis tribes indigenous to Canada then took to the stage.

Kumaritashvili's crash at the Whistler track, regarded as the fastest in the world, came a day after a luge federation official said that sliding tracks need to be slowed down.

The IOC launched an investigation but later reopened the track saying the crash was caused by an error from Kumaritashvili on the previous bend.

Like Rogge, Vancouver Games chief John Furlong fought 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. "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."

Georgia's Minister for Sport and Culture said the team would compete in the Games out of respect for their "fallen comrade".