VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada, a country now entirely gripped by Winter Olympics fever, watched helpless on Saturday as an ice-cool American snuck in to snatch gold from mogul favorite Jennifer Heil and prevent a 34-year national sporting jinx being broken.
After a day in which the death of a luge competitor dominated despite a dazzling opening ceremony, Games organizers and fans were treated to some world class and scintillating sports action.
Canada have a track record of staging first class Olympics -- they hosted the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and 1988 Winter Games in Calgary -- but less of a knack of gaining anything but consolation hugs and losers’ shrugs when they do.
Neither of those two events yielded gold for Canada and all the pre-Games talk for 2010 Vancouver has been when, not if, they would break that drought and who would do it.
Certainly, Saturday’s opening day action included a clutch of Canadian competitors with every prospect of breaking through, none more so than the elfin-faced Heil, a winner in the last Olympics in Turin four years ago in the women’s freestyle.
She was so, so close. An inch here or there, as the crowd at Cypress Mountain had witnessed plenty of times, could throw a competitor on her backside if she misjudged a turn or jump on the treacherous mounds of a lightning quick course.
So when Heil took the lead with only American Hannah Kearney left to go, the fans at courseside -- including Premier Stephen Harper -- and millions more Canadians watching on TV held their breath for a piece of national sporting history to unfold.
Kearney, though, turned party-pooper with surely as cool a performance as this Games will witness. She whistled down the course with barely a ski out of place and ended up beating Heil and the field by the relatively large margin of over a point.
Heil smiled bravely and defiantly for the podium pictures but could not help shedding a tear in a TV interview later.
Once again, then, it was not Canada’s golden day.
The women’s freestyle was, though, by no means the only nail-biting finish of a memorable day.
South Korea’s Lee Jung-su took gold in short track skating, but two compatriots, headed for silver and bronze, collided in the final seconds and gave the other medals to Americans, including the silver, the sixth Olympic medal of his career, to Apolo Anton Ohno.
Ohno thus matched speedskater Bonnie Blair’s distinction as America’s top winter Olympian.
Moguls and short track brought the first flashes of excitement to Winter Games marred by the fatal crash of a Georgian luger in training on Friday.
The death of 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili loomed large and nowhere was the loss more palpable than at the luge track, the world’s fastest in high-mountain Whistler.
Amid soul searching and modifications, the men’s luge competition went ahead and nobody was hurt after it ran from the lower women’s start and walls were raised at curve 16 exit where the first-time Olympian died.
Fog, rain and snow conspired to upset the first day of medals contention, especially in alpine skiing on Whistler, where the men’s downhill was pushed back to Monday.
The United States led the medals table after day one with four in total -- one gold, one silver and two bronze, including J.R. Celski’s in the men’s 1,500 meter short track.
Canada had also high hopes for a speed skating medal, but that title went to Dutch world champion Sven Kramer, who stormed to gold in the 5,000 meters.
The Dutchman brought much-needed joyous scenes to the Games when he vaulted the fencing in front of the crowd and embraced his ecstatic orange-clad entourage once his win was confirmed.
“I worked my ass off to win this medal,” said Kramer upon winning his first Olympic gold and banishing the painful memories of the Turin Games four years ago when he failed to triumph as many expected.
Slovakia’s Anastazia Kuzmina won her first gold in the women’s biathlon 7.5km -- termed a “sprint.” She edged out Germany’s Magdalena Neuner, a six-times world champion.
Although the death of the Georgian luger made for a more subdued day, some athletes found unexpected inspiration.
Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann won the first gold medal of the Games early on Saturday and said the luger’s untimely death gave him strength before his winning normal hill jump.
“I knew that I had to jump very far. And with these events from yesterday, this gave me the idea of contemplating life,” the Swiss jumper, all of 28 years old, told reporters after winning his third gold, the first two won in the 2002 Games.
After Friday’s tragedy, the International Luge Federation (FIL) shortened the men’s luge to reassure shaken sliders. Adjustments were planned for women’s and doubles starts as well.
“The primary concern we have right now is the emotional aspect of it,” FIL secretary general Svein Romstad said at a charged news conference. At times he could barely speak.
Editing by Jon Bramley; To query or comment on this story email@example.com