The sport of luge runs in Nodar Kumaritashvili’s family. His father, Selix, is president of the republic of Georgia’s Luge Federation and his cousin is a coach with the national team who traveled to Vancouver for the Winter Olympics.
“He came to Canada with hopes and dreams, that this would be a magnificent occasion in his life,” said Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong, calling Kumaritashvili “an incredibly spirited young person” who wanted “to feel what it’s like to be called an Olympian.”
On Friday, the 5-foot-10, 175-lbs. athlete, who was raised in the Georgian settlement where he was born, hurled off his sled at a turn and crashed into an unpadded pole during a training run at the Whistler Sliding Center. He was believed to be traveling at about 90 mph. Attempts to resuscitate him failed, and the 21-year-old was declared dead.
Although other athletes have raised questions about the safety of the track, an investigation by authorities blames the crash on driver error, according to the Coroners Service of British, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the International Luge Federation.
“It appears after a routine run, the athlete came late off curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make (a) correct entrance into curve 16,” the statement said. “This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident.”
Teammates were stricken by the news and just hours later marched solemnly in the opening ceremonies bearing black armbands. The crowd of 60,000 saluted the seven Georgians with a standing ovation. The flag bearer for the Georgian team, Alpine skier Iason Abramashvili, 21, was raised in the same region as Kumaritashvili. The team, despite the tragedy, will compete the Games.
“We all shed a tear,” said American figure skating coach, Robin Wagner, who is coaching Georgian figure skater Elene Gedevanishivili. “We share an emotional bond and this has been painful,” she tells PEOPLE.
Kumaritashvili was ranked 44th in the world and competed in five of the eight World Cup events this season, according to news reports. His top finish this season was 28th in the final World Cup race of the season in Italy.
On Wednesday, he did not finish his second training run but completed four other runs during the week, according to reports. Officials said Kumaritashvili had 26 runs on the track, a large number.
Georgia’s minister of culture and sport, Nikolos Rurua, dismissed assertions that Kumaritashvili was too inexperienced to race on the fast Whistler track where sliders have reached 95 mph during this week’s training.
“Insinuation (and) speculation about his experience to me seems a little bit unfair and misleading,” Rurua told USA Today.
Training runs resumed Saturday and the first luge medal event is expected to go on as planned Sunday.