TBILISI – Georgia was in shock Saturday after the tragic death of one of its athletes overshadowed the opening of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and plunged the country into mourning.
Many Georgians were in tears as they watched footage – shown repeatedly on television – of the accident that saw Nodar Kumaritashvili fly off the Olympic luge track at high speed and smash into a metal pillar during a training run.
The 21-year-old was knocked unconscious and immediately placed on a stretcher with blood pouring from his face before being air-lifted to hospital and pronounced dead.
In Kumaritashvili’s hometown of Bakuriani, a well-known local ski resort and centre for winter sports, residents were gathering at the luger’s home to console his distraught father, mother and sister, family friend Giorgi Gavva told AFP.
"The whole of Bakuriani is in total shock. Everybody here knew this boy and had high hopes for him at the Olympics. The family is completely stunned," said Gavva, a close friend of Kumaritashvili’s father Dato, who remained home while his son travelled to the Olympics with his coach and cousin, Felix Kumaritashvili.
Gavva said Kumaritashvili was known locally as a soft-spoken but ambitious athlete.
"Nodar was a very shy boy but a very good sportsman with excellent prospects," he said.
On the snowy streets of the capital Tbilisi, Georgians said Kumaritashvili’s death was a tragedy for the entire nation.
"It was horrible to watch his death on television, this is such a tragedy. Our whole family was crying when we watched what happened," said 20-year-old student Nino Licheli.
"Everyone in Georgia is saddened by this; everyone is feeling a lot of pain. I hope the rest of our athletes in Vancouver can win some victories in his honour," said Levan Gagua, 37.
Speaking to Imedi television from Vancouver, Culture and Sport Minister Nikoloz Rurua said he expected Kumaritashvili’s body would be returned within a few days for burial in Bakuriani, where a luge track will be named in his honour.
Rurua said it was still too soon to say whether anything could have been done to prevent the accident.
"The investigation into this tragic incident has started and it is premature to make any conclusions at this point," he said.
"Our Olympic team and Olympic committee have received extraordinary support and sympathy from delegations of all countries," he said.
After initially considering pulling out of the Games, Georgia’s small team of athletes decided to continue at the competition and wore black armbands as they marched in the opening ceremony. The rest of Georgia’s team consists of three alpine skiers, three figure skaters and another luger.
President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is attending the games in Vancouver, met and held a moment of silence in Kumaritashvili’s honour with the country’s other athletes, Rustavi-2 television reported.
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.
Ex-Soviet Georgia has called for an international boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi over Moscow’s support for South Ossetia and another rebel Georgian region, Abkhazia, which is only about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the host city.