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Track controversy hangs over Georgian lugers funeral

Track controversy hangs over Georgian lugers funeral
2/20/2010 02:52:00 PM
AFP/POOL – Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili comforts David Kumaritashvili, the father of Georgian luger … Video Link Olympics Video:Olympic Minute: Vonn gets bronze in super-G AP Video Link Olympics Video:Prodigy on Ice ABC News Video Link Olympics Video:Wayland Club On The Strategy Behind Curling WBZ Boston by Irakli Metreveli Irakli Metreveli – Sat Feb 20, 12:31 pm ET

BAKURIANI, Georgia – Mourners gathered in the Georgian ski resort of Bakuriani on Saturday for the funeral of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, with unanswered questions about his death hanging heavy over the ceremony.

Grief over the 21-year-old's tragic death during a training accident at the Winter Olympics mingled with anger over claims that Kumaritashvili, and not the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre, was to blame for the accident.

Up to 2,000 mourners marched in a procession behind Kumaritashvili's open casket as it was carried from his family home to the cemetery of a small church in the mountainous village.

After a traditional Georgian Orthodox Christian ceremony under sunny skies, his body was buried in the snow-covered ground.

Kumaritashvili died during a training run after he lost control of his sled and was flung off the Olympic luge track before smashing into a metal pillar.

Organisers said the accident was a result of human error and there was no indication of track deficiencies, but the track was nonetheless altered after Kumaritashvili's death to slow it down and raise the borders around it.

Georgian officials, the luger's family and some other athletes have raised concerns about the track, with the head of the Georgian Olympic Committee saying this week that safety measures were inadequate.

Standing outside the family home in Bakuriani after the funeral, Kumaritashvili's father David told AFP his son was not to blame for his death.

"What can I say? Our family is devastated. But what I do know is that this was not caused by a mistake by Nodar," he said.

Kumaritashvili's coach and uncle, Felix, said he also had no doubt the track was responsible.

"What I can say for sure, and the whole luge community around the globe is saying the same thing, is that if the track's fence had been higher, Nodar would be with us today," he said.

"I hope the investigation that is under way will say the truth about what happened."

Before the funeral top officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili, visited the family home, where Saakashvili embraced Kumaritashvili's 44-year-old mother Dodo Kharazishvili as she wept over his body. Saakashvili made no comment as he departed the family home.

Kumaritashvili's family and his home town, an alpine winter sporting centre about 180 kilometres west of the capital Tbilisi, were devastated by the young athlete's death, which also cast a pall over the opening ceremonies of the Games.

Kumaritashvili's boyhood friend, Tengo Kharauli, said the community was furious not only over safety problems with the track, but also that organisers had tried to pin the blame on the Georgian luger.

"It's the opinion here in Bakuriani, and I think in all of Georgia, that we lost Nodar because safety norms at the track were not adequate," he said.

"The organisers are to blame, they did not guarantee the safety of the athletes... We can't not be angry."

Kumaritashvili's funeral procession marched down a street that has been named after the athlete and officials have said a new luge track will also be built in Bakuriani, a town of about 1,500 people, in his honour.

The International Luge Federation announced on Thursday that it will investigate Kumaritashvili's death and other accidents at the track, promising to report by the end of March.

The lightning-fast track has witnessed other spectacular crashes during the Games and US media have reported that an Olympic luge athlete injured in a crash at the sliding centre warned Canadian officials over safety in November.

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