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Georgian town in deep mourning for Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili

2010-02-21 10:49:00 Xinhuanet

BAKURIANI, Georgia, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- The tiny Georgian town of Bakuriani was in deep mourning Saturday for the funeral of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger who died in a high-speed training run hours before the opening of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

The 21-year-old lost control of his sled and slammed into a trackside steel pole at nearly 145 kph.

People carry the coffin of Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili during a funeral in Bakuriani, some 160 km (100 miles) west of Tbilisi, Feb. 20, 2010. (Xinhua/Liu Lihang)

Hundreds of mourners gathered there, and many struggled to contain their own tears walking after the casket in deep grief from Nodar's home to the yard of the Holy Christmas Church, which is still under construction.

A small choir sang Georgian chants. It was clear that day everyone cried. It had rained slightly on Wednesday, when the coffin of Nodar was taken from Canada to his hometown.

It seldom rains in the picturesque mountain snowy ski resort of Bakuriani during the winter. Bakurianians believed the sky must have cried for the late young luger.

Residents in the tight-knit community of Bakuriani started to gather outside the small house of Nodar's parents days before the funeral to offer condolences to his father, mother and sister though did little to dispel the family's grief over a life lost too soon.

President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili attended the burial.

David Kumaritashvili, 46, father of Nodar, a seasoned luger who won USSR youth championship when Georgia was part of the Soviet Union.

His cousin, Felix, head of the Georgian Luge Federation and witnessed Nodar's death. Nodar was also related to Aleko Kumaritashvili, the founder of organized sledging sports in Georgia.

Nodar began luge sliding when he was 13, he grew up in a house within easy reach of ski lifts and ski runs cutting through pine and fir slopes reaching to altitudes of 2100 meters.

"We are all about sports in this family. Nodar loved sports," a stone-faced father recounted sitting beside the coffin. "He also skied very well but he chosed to luge, that is our family tradition, all Georgians know Kumaritashvilis sled."

"He's an experienced professional sportsman, they should not humiliate Kumaritashvili," the father's words referred that Olympic and luge federation officials blamed the accident on the athlete, saying he was late in coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate, that led to his fatal crash.

"I am a luger too and understand that we all take risk when we pursue this sport, but when you know the risk is high, you take precautions. He was thrown out, but why had they failed to build higher walls and protective barriers along the riskiest part of the track for such a case?" David Kumaritashvili said dryly.

The elder luger said he does not want to pick a fight with anyone. "It is not going to bring my boy back," he said with a gesture. Elder Kumaritashvili fought back tears as he recalled his last phone conversation with his son.

"The day before the crash, Nodar phoned home by Internet to say that he was afraid the last curve," Davit Kumaritashvili said, looking at the table, where candles shed light on Nodar's portrait. "He's trained extensively around Europe since Georgia does not have a professional sled track, but he said this was the toughest track. I told him to decelerate by touching the surface of ice with feet -- but he was angry: 'Don't tell me that. You are a luger, lugers do not tell each other to slow down!'"

"Yes, he pursues speed, shouldn't an Olympic athlete pursue higher faster and stronger? He tried his best, the organizer should seek security issue."

The father denounced claims that his son was to blame, and defended him as a skilled luger.

After the crash, the starting point of the luge was moved down to reduce speed and a wooden wall erected atop the curve where Kumaritashvili lost his life.

Padding was added to exposed metal beyond the wall. Olympic officials claimed the changes "are not for safety reasons but to accommodate the emotional state of the lugers".

Some lugers, including Kumaritashvili's teammate Levan Gureshidze had quit the competition, and the athletes who decided to participate all wore a black stripe on their helmets in honour of Kumaritashvili.

Levan flew back to Georgia to participate in his friend's burial and struggled to cope with Nodar's death.

"We went to school together, hung out together, trained together, raced together. He died before my eyes," he said, tears filling his eyes. "Many tell me that I should've continued and pulled it off in Nodar's honor, but how could I go on after that? I could not race with the image of a dying Nodar in my head."

The athlete's distraught mother Dodo Kharazishvili, who dressed in black threw herself on the coffin sobbing.

"Why have I survived you, my son?" These were her only words. She had nothing for 5 days. An ambulance team was called to help her.

The street on which late Georgian luger lived, was renamed after Nodar Kumaritashvili. And - something that is probably the most appropriate given the circumstances - the Georgian government revealed a plan to construct a luge track in Bakuriani, which will be named in Kumaritashvili's honor.

A new generation of Georgian lugers will train here and follow Kumaritashvili's dream.

Davit Kumaritashvili decided to stay in Bakuriani to help designing the new course and coach the children who love luge.

For many Georgians, the tragedy in Vancouver brought back memories of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, when the country's athletes struggled to compete amidst Georgia's brief war with Russia over the breakaway South Ossetia region.

"In the year 2008, when you hold Olympic Games in China, we had a war in Georgia, we lost many good boys," elder Kumaritashvili said. "It happened, just like some grapes are sweet some are acid."

"Nodar fought for Georgia and died for her," He paused and then said expressively: "But this is not a war, no one supposed to die in games." (by Liu Lihang)

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