Olympics Open with Restrained, Respectful Celebration

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Robert Beck / Sports Illustrated

Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games Opening Ceremony

The opening ceremony for the 2010 Winter Olympics Friday night in Vancouver was the usual mix of artistry and awkwardness. The festivities included Canadian aboriginal dancers, who greeted the parade of athletes donned in sparkling regalia — a touching nod to an underappreciated aspect of the country's culture. But the 65-foot puppet of a polar bear covered in LED bulbs that emerged from the stage, while admittedly pretty cool, begged the question: Does the world really need to see a 65-foot polar bear?

The ceremony began with a film of a snowboarder gliding down a high alpine peak — before he slid down a giant faux hill into the arena of 60,000 spectators. During the cultural portion of the evening, Canadian singer K.D. Lang gave a virtuoso performance (Nelly Furtado, not so much). Another highlight was the stadium's virtual floor, which transformed into a vast ice floe that appeared to break apart and disperse, revealing a virtual ocean across which whales swam in 3-D.

The climax of the event, the Olympic torch lighting, left something to be desired: four mechanical torches were supposed to rise from the floor and be lit by Canada's most famous athletes, including hockey great Wayne Gretzky and NBA MVP Steve Nash; the four torches were designed to light the final Olympic torch. But one of the massive columns malfunctioned, leaving the athletes stranded and looking peeved in front of millions of television viewers. Eventually, though, the Olympic torch was lit.

But this opening ceremony, the first ever conducted in an indoor stadium, will not be remembered for what unfolded. Rather, it will serve as a reminder of the tragedy that took place earlier in the day — a memorial to who wasn't there.

Hours before the ceremony began, Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, died after a high-speed crash during a training run at the Whistler Sliding Center, north of Vancouver. On the final turn of the track, Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled, struck an inside wall and was catapulted over the low outer wall of the track, into an unpadded steel support column. His sled was traveling at 88 m.p.h. The ghastly replay of the accident was shown several times on Canadian national television. Viewers screamed when they saw the clip on one downtown Vancouver television screen.

The opening-day death was eerily reminiscent of what transpired on the first day of competition at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, when a deranged recluse murdered the father-in-law of the U.S. volleyball team's coach Hugh McCutcheon, setting an early pall over the events.

But the disaster in Vancouver felt uniquely awful, for two reasons. First, its occurrence just hours before the opening ceremony created a somber and painful situation: A man had just lost his life preparing for a multibillion-dollar sporting spectacle, yet participants were obliged to sing, dance and play their fiddles in celebration of it. Let the games begin! Second, while the Beijing murder was a terrible tragedy, it was a random act of violence. On Friday, an athlete was killed pursuing what Olympic officials sell as the epitome of purity: Go faster, go higher.

Worse, Kumaritashvili's death may have been preventable. Yes, luge is an inherently dangerous sport in which sliders can approach speeds reaching 90 m.p.h. The speed is part of its allure, and the rush of the event is what attracts audiences. However, throughout this week's training runs, athletes have voiced their concern about the safety of the Whistler track, which is the fastest in the world; last February, a German athlete was clocked traveling more than 95 m.p.h. during a luge World Cup test event. Over the past week, about a dozen athletes have crashed during luge training here. A Romanian Olympian was briefly knocked unconscious, and the gold medal favorite, Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, survived a crash unhurt, just before Kumaritashvili's run.

The near-vertical drop at the start of the track and the steep curves at the top propel sliders at unprecedented speeds at the outset, making the later twists and turns even trickier to negotiate. "I think they are pushing it a little too much," Austrian luge athlete Hannah Campbell-Pegg told the Associated Press the day before Kumaritashvili's fatal accident. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this our lives."

After the accident, other shortcomings in safety were questioned: Why wasn't there padding on the steel columns? Should there be some kind of netting covering the track, to keep athletes from being thrown out?

And in the run-up to the Games, several countries complained that Canada limited competitors' access to the Whistler track for training, in an attempt to protect its home-turf advantage. The country has made no secret of its quest to top the medal tables at these events. The effort has even been solidified into an official winter-sport program called Own The Podium. "I think it could have been avoided," said American Steven Holcomb, the world's top bobsled driver, in an email message to TIME less than an hour before the start of the opening ceremony. "Limiting time on the fastest track in the world, and one of the most difficult, didn't help the situation."

The ceremony retained its festive flair and feeling of brotherhood, but Kumaritashvili's death clearly weighed on the minds of the participants. "Shock," U.S. speedskating star Apolo Ohno wrote in an email when asked to assess his mood before the ceremonies. "Heart goes out the Georgian team." Holcomb says the tragedy "put a damper on a lot of our spirits."

Before the ceremony began, the public-address announcer declared that the event would be dedicated to Kumaritashvili. The crowd gave the small clutch of Georgian athletes, clearly saddened and wearing black armbands in honor of their fallen teammate, a classy standing ovation as they entered the arena. Toward the end of the evening, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said a few words in Kumaritashvili's honor before the torch was lit: he genuinely seemed to be struggling.

The men's luge event is still scheduled to start late Saturday afternoon local time. After an investigation, Olympic officials concluded that athlete error, not a track deficiency, was ultimately responsible for the accident. Of course, that explanation won't assuage everyone. "This is a time for sorrow," Rogge said on Friday. "This is not a time to look for reasons."

Unfortunately for Rogge, the athletes risking their lives on the luge track don't have time to wait for answers. Let the games begin.