Georgian athletes mourn fallen teammate, adding somber note to Vancouver opening ceremony

By Erin Mcclam, AP
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Somber teammates honor fallen luger as games open

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — They marched in more like an honor guard than an Olympic delegation, standing out for their stoicism — black armbands and black scarves marking their grief, their faces still and almost determined.

There were only seven of them, nothing like the American and Canadian throngs who strutted and smiled and snapped photos on their way into BC Place Stadium for the opening ceremony.

And as the Georgian team strode calmly onto the arena floor Friday night, not 12 hours removed from the loss of one of their own in a horrific crash on the luge track, they were greeted not by raucous cheers but by respectful applause.

Olympic dignitaries and competitors stood in salute. The crowd of more than 50,000 suspended the nightlong celebration to pay a muted tribute. For a moment, the opening ceremony, perhaps the most exuberant spectacle in sports, became a somber remembrance.

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, who lost control of his sled, flew over the wall and slammed into a steel pole — on a course that athletes had warned was dangerous — cast a shadow of grief over the start of an already troubled games.

There were several pauses to pay respect to the first athlete killed at the Winter Olympics in 18 years.

“It is with great sadness that we acknowledge this tragic loss,” IOC president Jacques Rogge told a crowd that minutes earlier had been cheering a pageant of fireworks and acrobatics.

Vancouver organizing chief John Furlong encouraged athletes to carry the luger’s “Olympic dream on your shoulders, and compete with his spirit in your heart.”

Kumaritashvili was the fourth Winter Olympian to lose his life at the games, all of them in training, and the first since the 1992 Albertville Games. Death also haunted the last games hosted by Canada — in 1988, when an Austrian team doctor fell under a snow machine in Calgary.

The Georgians decided to stay and compete despite the tragedy, dedicating their performances to Kumaritashvili. The athletes “decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games,” said Nikolos Rurua, Georgia’s minister of culture and sport.

Organizers dedicated the entire opening ceremony to the 21-year-old slider, and faced the difficult task of balancing the shock with the traditionally upbeat atmosphere of the opening ceremony.

The change in tone was unmistakable.

“When we get here, we’re all part of the same family,” American snowboarding star Shaun White said. “It’s definitely affected everyone here.”

In addition to the black armbands and scarves, the Georgian delegation draped its flag — a red cross against a white field, with smaller crosses in each of the four corners, carried by skier Iason Abramashvili — in black ribbon.

The mood stood in contrast to the rest of the ceremony. It opened with a gleeful countdown by the fans and a snowboarder who hurtled through the five suspended Olympic rings as fireworks glittered.

Earlier in the day, news of the crash in Whistler filtered down from the mountains as the Olympic flame was still making its way past cheering crowds through the downtown streets of Vancouver.

Visibly shaken, Rogge told a press conference: “I have no words to say what we feel.”

“Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion,” he said. “He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident.”

Rushing down the track, Kumaritashvili had taken the next-to-last curve at an unusually high path, then slid down the wall with his feet pointed the wrong way. As he hit the corner entering the final straightaway with his body, he was knocked off his sled and shot across the track, arms and legs flailing.

Less than a second later, Kumaritashvili’s upper body struck a steel post in place to hold up a metal roof along the end of the track. He came to rest on a metal walkway, his left leg in the air and left foot propped atop the track wall.

Rescue workers got to him within seconds and began lifesaving efforts, but Kumaritashvili died shortly afterward at a nearby hospital.

The track is known as probably the fastest in the world, and Kumaritashvili was traveling at nearly 90 mph before he crashed.

“It is a nervous situation,” Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said after the crash. “I hope, we all hope, it’s the first accident and the last accident in this race.”

Athletes had raised concerns about the safety of the track. Australian Hannah Campbell-Pegg went so far as to wonder aloud, a day before the fatal crash, whether lugers were being made into “crash-test dummies” thrown down the course.

Vancouver organizers and the International Luge Federation said they would raise the wall at the exit of the last curve on the course, where Kumaritashvili lost control, and make other unspecified changes to the ice before reopening the track Saturday.

They called the accident “extremely exceptional,” however, and said it was triggered by Kumaritashvili’s failure to compensate for coming late out of the next-to-last curve, not by “deficiencies in the track.”

For the Georgian team, it was a second straight Olympics spent in mourning. At the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, the delegation anxiously followed developments from back home as Russia and Georgia fought a brief war. Then, too, the athletes elected to stay and compete.

“This is a nation that has gone through an awful lot in the last three, four years,” Vice President Joe Biden said while addressing U.S. athletes shortly before the opening ceremony. “It’s a small nation of 5 million people, and the pride they had in representing their country here at the Olympics, and now to suffer this loss is just tragic.”

IOC officials pledged and investigation and set out to determine how the luge course might be made safe for competition. Still, Rogge cautioned: “This is a time for sorrow. It is not a time to look for reasons that it happened.”

The crash added a pall to a Winter Games already struggling to overcome problems.

Training runs for the men’s and women’s downhill were canceled Friday because of rain overnight, and both of the first two Alpine events — the men’s downhill Saturday and the women’s super-combined Sunday — were postponed. That might have been good news for American Lindsey Vonn, the headliner of the Vancouver Games, who now will have at least one more day to recover from a badly bruised right shin.

At Cypress Mountain, site of the freestyle skiing and snowboard competitions, more than 100,000 cubic feet of snow had to be trucked in for the games because there hadn’t been a significant storm since the middle of January.

And organizers had to change the course of the torch itself Friday because of protesters waiting as the flame entered a poor, drug-addled Vancouver neighborhood. Mounted police prevented about 150 demonstrators from confronting the relay.

Not even the most anticipated moment of the opening ceremony, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron inside the dome, went off as planned.

Four pillars were supposed to rise from the floor, each lit by four famed Canadians, to form a teepee-shaped structure. But one of the beams never emerged, leaving speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan holding her torch with nothing to do.

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