Fallen luger set for return home, sport in turmoil

Grief-stricken Olympic organizers made final plans Sunday for

the body of the Georgian killed on the luge track to return home,

leaving behind a sport in disarray and a games struggling to escape

the tragic specter of the crash.

Flowers and memorial messages piled up at the athletes’ village

in Whistler, not far from where Nodar Kumaritashvili died on the

first day of an Olympics that now seems destined to bear the scar

of the accident.

The sport awarded its first medals of the Vancouver Games – a

welcome, if somewhat awkward, moment of joy. At the same time,

lugers made clear they were unhappy with changes made to the track

in the aftermath of the ghastly crash.

Kumaritashvili was traveling at nearly 90 mph when he flew off

the icy course Friday and into a steel pole during a training run.

To make sure the sleds ran slower during competition, the run was

shortened for both men and women.

“The second they did that, they basically gave the Germans two

medals, which was frustrating,” said American Tony Benshoof, who

finished eighth and said he respected the decision to alter the

course but was not happy with it.

Germany’s Felix Loch took the gold medal after speeding safely

through the final curve that took the young Georgian’s life.

Teammate David Moeller claimed silver, Italy’s Armin Zoeggler

bronze.

The International Olympic Committee and luge officials took

sharp criticism for blaming the accident on Kumaritashvili’s

failure to make tactical corrections during his run, and for saying

they were changing the course not to make it safer but to soothe

the emotions of the athletes.

Kumaritashvili’s body will leave Monday afternoon on a flight to

Germany and will then be flown to Georgia for arrival early

Wednesday, a senior Olympic official told The Associated Press. The

official spoke anonymously because the plans were being kept

private.

Kumaritashvili is to be buried in his hometown of Bukuriani, a

small ski resort about 110 miles from Tbilisi, the capital of the

former Soviet republic.

His father, David, a Soviet-era luger himself, told The Wall

Street Journal his son had called three days before his death and

said he was terrified by at least one section of the Whistler

track, considered the fastest in the world.

“He said, `Dad, I’m scared of one of the turns,”’ the

newspaper reported on its Web site Sunday. “I said, `Put your legs

down on the ice to slow down,’ but he said if he started the course

he would finish it.”

The 21-year-old’s death was felt across the games for a third

straight day. Prayers were said in his memory at a mountain church

service in Whistler, and the Olympic rings at the athletes’ village

in the resort town became an impromptu memorial of flowers and

photos.

“The community naturally is sad, because we want people to be

safe here,” said Jerry Desmond, pastor of Our Lady of the

Mountains Catholic Church. “We hate to leave like this – so young

and so suddenly.”

The athlete’s teammates elected to stay and compete in the

games, although the only other luger in the delegation, Levan

Gureshidze, did not race after the crash and was absent from

Sunday’s finals.

Competition continues later this week at the Whistler Sliding

Center’s 16-turn superspeedway, where padding now wraps the girder

that Kumaritashvili crashed into and a wooden wall was erected atop

the curve where he flew off his sled. The women’s gold medal will

be awarded Tuesday, the doubles’ Wednesday.

The women, too, made no secret of their frustration at having to

slide a shorter, modified course. Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger

said it was now essentially a track for children.

“I don’t know what went on behind closed doors, but there

weren’t very many options,” said world champion Erin Hamlin of

Remsen, N.Y. “You can’t change how the track was built in 24

hours.”

Debate continued Sunday about how much the luger’s own handling

of the course contributed to the accident. Luge officials said in

the hours after the crash that his failure to compensate for a late

exit from a prior turn was to blame.

Clive Woodward, performance director for the British Olympic

Committee, told a BBC Radio program the track was safe.

“Now they’ve all seen it and the shock has gone away, I think

it’s fair to say … this was an error by a young luge athlete,”

he said. “That was it. It was put down to driver error,” he

said.

However, Anita DeFrantz, an American member of the IOC who

competed as an Olympic athlete in rowing, said it was unfair to

assess blame.

“I don’t think it’s a question of fault,” she said. “We need

to understand he was here doing the best he could do. It’s

unfortunate he let go of the luge at 100 mph. Things happen. I’m

not sure there’s anything that could have been done

differently.”

The British Columbia Coroner’s Service is investigating the

crash. A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said

investigators were done gathering evidence and witness accounts.

Collision reconstruction experts also examined the scene.

IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg, a Norwegian who

organized the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, said it was too

early to draw any long-term lessons from the crash.

“We have not discussed the consequences for later games at this

stage,” he said. “We will try to find out what happened, what can

we do to prevent this. I will not speculate at this stage.”

Meantime, Olympic officials tried to return the focus to

competition.

“Under the somber circumstances, it can be difficult to

celebrate,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “But it’s a good

Olympics.”

Friday’s opening ceremony was dedicated to Kumaritashvili, and

in addition to making plans for the return of his body, Olympic

organizers said they would consider how to pay tribute in the

future.

“We’re still working closely with the family,” Adams said.

“When the time is right, we will think about a more lasting

legacy.”