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Olympics: Vancouver ceremony strikes fittingly sombre note

The Winter Olympics? Me neither. It's hard enough getting worked up about a summer Olympics in this day and age.

An Olympic games opening ceremony? Me neither. But someone has to do it. So there we were at 2.0 yesterday morning, sitting up and tuned into the BBC, the bottle of Blue Nun in the fridge in case desperate measures were needed to make it through the night.

Vancouver, apparently, has been consistently rated "the world's most liveable city", an experiment in multiculturalism that has achieved improbable levels of harmony despite the fact that for 52 per cent of the population, English is not their first language. And Canada itself is currently in vogue as a cool, progressive country where they're not big on nationalism or patriotic fervour. "We may not wave the flag like other countries, we are quietly proud," said Kerrin Lee-Gartner, an Olympic gold medal winner in downhill skiing.

And their opening ceremony was suitably classy. Or at least it managed to keep the ludicrousness to a minimum. Which was just as well because the proceedings were overshadowed by the death of a 21-year-old athlete from Georgia earlier on Friday.

Nodar Kumaritashvili was representing his country in the luge. A luge is a sled that is propelled by the person lying down, feet first, and steered by the shoulders and legs. In competition, athletes reach speeds of over 90mph.

The Olympic track at Whistler mountain, some 70 miles north of Vancouver, stretches for almost a mile and has a vertical drop of 148 metres. It was widely considered to be the fastest track in the world and, as early as 12 months ago, various experts were warning about its dangers. A German luger broke the world record in February 2009 and just last Thursday, that record was broken by an Austrian who reached 154kmh (almost 97mph). A number of competitors crashed last week during trial runs.

"I think they are pushing it a little too much," said an Australian athlete, Hannah Campbell-Pegg, after she lost control in training on Thursday. "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 G-forces buffeting the human body in sports like the luge and skeleton are part of the thrill for those who do it. But even the best exponents were shadowed by fear last week. A Latvian, Guntis Rekis, also had a high-speed crash on Thursday. "My goals," he said afterwards, "are to stay alive and not break any bones."

A spokesman for the International Luge Federation said speed limits would have to be imposed on future tracks. "If you stick your head out of the sunroof of a car at 155kmh you can imagine how that would feel," said Wolfgang Harder, "we have to take care of the security of our athletes."

Last August the director of USA Luge expressed his worries about inexperienced competitors on the Whistler track. "You get a whole spectrum of skill levels at an Olympic games," said Ron Rossi. "I do have a concern that people who are a little less experienced have the potential to get seriously hurt."

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Kumaritashvili was ranked 44th in the world. He was travelling at 90mph when he lost control of his sled at Curve 16, the last corner before the finish line. The sled bounced off a side wall and threw him over a low, ice-covered wall. He was hurtled into vertical supports that hold a canopy and lights over the course. Medics were on the scene immediately and the athlete was transferred to a nearby hospital where he was later pronounced dead.

When Georgia's team and officials arrived into the stadium as part of the opening ceremony's parade of nations, they wore black armbands and black scarves. A wave of sympathetic applause rolled around the 60,000 crowd.

The small Irish contingent arrived shortly afterwards. They were wearing tracksuit bottoms a hideous shade of lime, and shapeless black tops. The USA team had its uniform designed by Ralph Lauren. The Irish crew looked like they'd been kitted out in Aldi.

Canada is a country teeming with writers and musicians and some of their greatest were represented during what was at times a

beautiful spectacle. Opening ceremonies are essentially tourist pageants for the host nation and Canada told its story through its fabulous landscape, from the Northern Lights of the Arctic Circle through to its vast golden prairies. A tableau featuring CGI images of the latter was particularly stunning: just a boy on the vast stage, the stadium bathed in yellow light and a lone voice singing Joni Mitchell's gorgeous ballad Both Sides Now.

It was a melancholy interlude in a traditionally ersatz event which usually pretends that the world is just one big happy family. The organisers had taken a risk but, in the context of the day's events, it worked magically well.

Jacque Rogge, IOC president, and Irishman John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver organising committee, wore black ties. They were both visibly shaken, their speeches subdued.

But then, in a final moment of sombre serendipity, the night's entertainment ended with another great Canadian artist singing the song of another great Canadian songwriter; k.d. lang restored the grandeur to Leonard Cohen's masterpiece Hallelujah. On a night of celebration darkened by tragedy, it was just about perfect.


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