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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter Olympics: In hometown of Olympic Georgian luger, anger grows


MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI
Associated Press Writer

BAKURIANI, Georgia Every day since the death of a Georgian luger at the Vancouver Olympics, his mentors and colleagues gather at the yard of his parents' house, fuming about the safety of the track where he died.

Nodar Kumaritashvili died last week hours before the opening ceremony. He lost control of his sled during a training run, shot off course and slammed into a trackside steel pole at nearly 90 mph.

An investigation by Olympic and luge officials found the accident resulted from human error, not track deficiencies.

The investigation found that the 21-year-old Kumaritashvili, who had completed only 26 runs on the Whistler course, was late in coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate.

"How dare they blame it on the athlete who perished so tragically?" said Kakhaber Vakhtangishvili, a 40-year-old multiple luge champion from the former Soviet Union. He added that Kumaritashvili's death was "nothing but irresponsibility of the organizers of the Olympics."

Everyone in a small crowd of lugers who train in this Alpine village of Bakuriani nod in agreement. Most of them have tried and tested tracks around the world Georgia was responsible for many of the Soviet-era records in winter sports.

"Everyone talks about the curve where Nodar flew out of the chute," said pioneering Georgian luger Timur Tediashvili, now 60, who still bares scars on his neck and speaks of his broken limbs from accidents on the track during his decades-long career. "Perhaps it should have been less steep. This is the world's fastest track and, naturally, security measures had to be special."

Concerns about the course had been raised for months. Many worried that the $100 million-plus venue was too technically demanding, and that only Canada's sliders would have enough time to adapt to it during practice.

It was Kumaritashvili's death, however, that prompted changes to the course for the Olympic luge events the starts of the men's, women's and doubles races were moved down the course to decrease speeds. A wooden wall was erected atop the curve where Kumaritashvili flew off his sled, and padding was wrapped around steel girders beyond the wall.

Bobsled and skeleton events later used the full Olympic course with the regular starts.

But people in Georgia are still indignant about the organizers' slowness to react to earlier complaints about the track.

"Ours is the most traumatic of all sports we've broken our hands and legs so many times," said George Galla, a 60-year old veteran luger. "But this flight out of the track means the track was completely not ready for the games."

Kumaritashvili's death shocked the small Caucasus Mountains nation, and hundreds showed up at his parents' house in Bakuriani to express condolences. Many Georgian officials said that if the young athlete made a mistake, the price he paid for it was too tragic.

"The fact that after Nodar's death they took extreme security measures speaks for itself," said Georgia's chief luge coach Felix Kumaritashvili, an uncle of the Olympic luger. "In fact, Nodar's death prevented other tragedies on that track."

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Associated Press writer Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed to this report.