By Duncan Mackay in Vancouver

February 12 - The Olympics officially opened here tonight, ending a seven-year wait for Vancouver, but the ceremony was overshadowed by the death earlier in the day of Georgia's Nodar Kumaritashvili.

The BC Place Stadium staged a colourful indoor ceremony involving a host of stars linking Canada's past with the modern nation, including a welcome from the country's Native peoples, watched by a capacity crowd of 60,000, including United States vice-president Joe Biden.

It culminated years of planning as some 2,500 athletes from 82 nations prepare to compete in the showpiece, with Canadian Governor General Michaelle Jean officially declaring the event open.

With flags at half-mast in honour of luger Kumaritashvili, who had been killed while training for the luge, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge prefaced the traditional opening speeches by saying: "It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the tragic loss of Nodar Kumaritashvili of the Georgian team, who passed away this morning in a training accident on the luge track. We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, friends, team-mates and country."

Organisers were faced with a difficult dilemma when Kumaritashvili died earlier in the day after flying off the Olympic luge track at high speed and smashing into a metal pillar during a training run.

The 21-year-old was knocked unconscious and immediately placed on a stretcher with blood pouring from his face before being air-lifted to hospital and pronounced dead.

Georgia's shellshocked eight-man team, now reduced to seven, considered pulling out of the Games but decided to compete in honour of Kumaritashvili.

"During the 2008 Summer Olympics Georgia was invaded by Russia and despite this they stayed and won several medals," said Georgia's Minister for Sports and Culture Nikolos Rurua.

"So our sportsmen have decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games and compete and dedicate their efforts to their fallen comrade."

They marched into the Stadium wearing black armbands, led by flag-bearer Iason Abramashvili, a skier who at 21 is the same age as Kumaritashvili, in a sombre mood and were greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd.

There was later a minute's silence.

The IOC said an investigation into the crash was underway and it was too early to say whether the luge events, which are due to begin tomorrow, will go ahead.

Rogge later reminded all athletes of their responsibility as role models.

Rogge said: "Dear athletes, these Games belong to you ... so give them the magic that we all desire through your performances and your conduct.

"Remember that you are role models for the youth of the world.

"There is no glory without responsibility."

Canadian Paralympian Rick Hansen carried the torch into the stadium at the end of a record-breaking 28,000-mile, 106-day trip across the country and four athletes, including ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, lit the flame simultaneously.

The climax called for the cauldron to be lit jointly by four Canadian sports heroes - with skier Nancy Greene, basketball All-Star Steve Nash and speed skater Catriona LeMay Doan - joining Gretzky.

But LeMay Doan was left to stand by awkwardly when one of the four pillars holding the Olympic cauldron failed to rise.

A second, far larger cauldron was lit by Gretzky in a plaza along the downtown waterfront - giving Vancouver a visible symbol for the rest of the Games that the indoor stadium could not provide.

With tragedy hanging over the Games, organisers continued to battle warm weather in Vancouver and on nearby Cypress Mountain, the host of the freestyle events.

Tonnes of snow have had to be driven and helicoptered in from higher elevations to Cypress, and rain has further complicated matters.

Up at Whistler, site of the blue-riband alpine skiing events, it is not a case of no snow but too much snow.

The poor conditions and a lack of training runs forced the women's opening alpine skiing event, the super-combined scheduled for Sunday, to be postponed until a yet to be decided day.

The men's downhill event is set for tomorrow morning, but with more rain and snow forecast overnight, that too could be in jeopardy.

Despite the conditions, the Olympics began at Whistler with ski jump qualifying.

Six gold medals are set to be decided on the first competitive day tomorrow.

The Games' build-up culminated with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, signalling the end of a marathon which has seen the torch cross 45,000km of the country.

It met small-scale protests on the final leg Friday when around 100 demonstrators, upset over the financial and environmental impact of the Olympics, briefly blocked the relay route.

Contact the writer of this story at [email protected] 

Related stories
February 2010: 
Georgian killed in luge accident at Winter Olympics in Vancouver