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Winter Olympics’ Opening Day Marred by Luger’s Death

February 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The 21st Olympic Winter Games kick off Friday in Vancouver with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron and the parade of nations, but hours before the opening ceremonies, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a training run. Jeffrey Brown speaks with USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan in Vancouver.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now the Olympic Games are upon us, with the opening ceremony unfolding tonight in Vancouver. In recent days, the focus has been on the weather and all the last-minute preparations for the city and athletes.

Today, though, that was overshadowed by the death of an athlete from the nation of Georgia, who died after a crash during a training run in the men’s luge competition.

JACQUES ROGGE, president, International Olympic Committee: Sorry. It’s a bit difficult to — to remain composed. This is a very sad day. The IOC is in deep mourning. Here, you have a young athlete who lost his life in pursuing his passion. He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard. And he had this fatal accident. I have no words to say what we feel.

JEFFREY BROWN: We talk about that and more now with veteran Olympics reporter Christine Brennan, a columnist for USA Today and commentator for ABC News and ESPN.

Christine, welcome again for more Olympics coverage.

The luger’s name was Nodar Kumaritashvili. What more can you tell us about what happened?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: This is a tragedy.

And, Jeff, I have got to tell you, in my — this is my 14th Olympics, Winter and Summer, going back to L.A. in 1984, and I don’t remember something like this happening on an opening ceremonies day. The opening ceremonies the ultimate of highs and excitement, and the preparation of a city for seven or eight years now finally come to fruition.

And to think that this news is, of course, the tragic story of a man’s death, and then that this also would be the news of this day, it puts a damper on this city that no rainstorm could equal.

And I really feel, of course, first of all, for the athlete, his family, the Georgian team. But I also — I wonder what this will mean in terms of the Games and as an omen, maybe, as a harbinger. Maybe, it’s also just something that people now will remember, that this happened a few hours before the opening ceremonies started.

JEFFREY BROWN: This luge competition, it had got some notice for precisely this. This was a very fast track, and there were some safety concerns.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Jeff, you know, these are the Games of ice and snow. And it is it skates, and it’s blades, and it’s skis, and it’s sleds.

And it is what we want to watch on TV. It is exciting. And it is different. And that very thing, that — the need to have speed and the need to increase speed and to push the limits in so many different sports, we will certainly in the days ahead be looking at this, as journalists, and as the officials check and see what went wrong.

But the fact that this track was being discussed as being too fast by competitors, and now a man is dead, my goodness, that is a huge story on the world stage, and, again, at the exact wrong time, from the organizer’s perspective, and such, again, a tragedy of monumental proportions for the family and for all of the people in the entire luge community. They don’t get much attention. And to be in the news this way is just — just horrible.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Now, what about that other major storyline that has been going — and you mentioned it — I mentioned it in the introduction — the weather? A lot of rain and not enough snow, I guess.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, of course, I’m based in Washington, D.C., and I flew out in between snowstorms on Sunday night.

And I think I should have packed my carry-on bag with some snow for Vancouver. Obviously, it wouldn’t have lasted.

But it is extraordinary. This is like an early April day on the East Coast or in the Midwest. It’s 45 to 50 degrees. There’s rain. It’s gray. It’s fantastic weather, especially with what is going on in the rest of the country — or the rest of the United States, but — but it’s disarming.

And here in Vancouver, the IOC picked a moderate climate. They picked this temperate climate. They knew what they were getting. It was a roll of the dice. And, when you roll the dice and you pick a climate that is warmer on — of course, on the Pacific Coast, this is potentially what you could get.

I think it’s, in many ways, the worst situation possible, from the standpoint of the quaintness of the Winter Olympics. When people tune in, they want to see snow. Obviously, snow on the mountains is a beautiful sight. It is a great thing.

And, right now, Cypress Mountain, which is where the snowboarding and the freestyle skiing will be, that is where they are trucking in the snow, hundreds of tons of it a day.

And that’s embarrassing, frankly, for a Winter Olympic city. No matter how great Vancouver is, this is an embarrassment. And you don’t have snow, and you are the Winter Olympic city. That is tough.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they just announced late today that they are postponing the first women’s ski event.

Now, all of this must be disrupting things for the athletes, but, in this case, it helps one of the premier athletes on the American side, right?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: That’s right, Lindsey Vonn, obviously the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” the athlete. If you have tuned on your television set and seen any commercials, you have probably seen Lindsey Vonn, the greatest female skier on Earth and two-time World Cup champ and overall champ, and could win as many as five medals here, more likely maybe three.

But she would love to win one gold or two, maybe three. But she has a very bad shin bruise. She fell in a training run in Austria in — about a week-and-a-half ago. And she wasn’t — hasn’t been able to ski since that time, wasn’t even able to put her boot on, her ski boot on, for a couple days, because of — pressing against that on her shin really hurt.

And so this has been a terrible turn of events for Lindsey Vonn. Any time she gets, any more days she gets to push things back is a blessing for her. And the fact that the weather is bad up on Whistler, and they are pushing things back could be very good news for Lindsey Vonn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there are too many other athletes for us to talk about. I mean, there has been the interesting story about the Canadians pushing harder for medals on their side this time.

Well, you are a veteran of these things. What are you looking forward to?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, I think — of course, I always end up at the figure skating venue, Jeff, which is — which is where the soap opera is occurring. And it has already started.

The flame, of course, has not even — the cauldron hasn’t been lighted yet, and, yet, already figure skating is in full-throttle. And with the Russians, East/West — you know, the Cold War is over, but it is alive and well at the figure skating venue.

Evgeni Plushenko, the men’s defending Olympic gold medalist, coming back, trying to win again. The Russians are very concerned. I had a story yesterday about the Russians being very concerned about any criticism of him and wanting that deleted from educational videos for the judges. A lot of back-and-forth about whether he is artistic enough or not.

This is going to be fascinating, because, in the men’s event — normally, we talk about the women’s figure skating. Men’s figure skating, Jeff, eight men could win the gold medal. Plushenko could be first. He could be seventh or eighth. I have never seen a field that deep in figure skating, especially on the men’s side.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christine Brennan from Vancouver, thanks so much. And we will hope to check back in with you some time over the next couple weeks. Thanks.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: You bet, Jeff. Thank you very much.