Georgia buries Olympic luger, safety debate goes on

BAKURIANI, Georgia (Reuters) - Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was buried before thousands of mourners in his snowbound hometown Saturday as debate raged over the safety of the track that claimed his life at the Vancouver Olympics.

The open coffin bearing the 21-year-old, his body wrapped in the red-and-white Georgian flag, was borne down streets cleared of ice and interred in the grounds of the local church a week after he lost control of his sled and slammed into a steel pillar at 90 miles per hour.

Villagers and fellow sportsmen carrying Georgian flags lined the route through the sleepy winter resort town of Bakuriani, nestling in dramatic forested mountains 180 km (110 miles) west of the capital Tbilisi.

Mourners, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili wearing the white jacket of the Georgian Olympic team, looked on in silence under clear blue skies.

“He died for Georgia, he died for this sport,” Kumaritashvili’s distraught father David, himself a former luger, told reporters.

Kumaritashvili’s death on a training run hours before the opening ceremony has sparked debate over the safety of the Whistler track, built at a cost of $100 million to be the fastest in the world.

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The Games organizers and the International Luge Federation (FIL) blamed the accident on a misjudgment by the luger, but then raised the barrier at the fatal curve and shortened the track to reduce speed. Georgians have expressed disbelief that a mistake could cost Kumaritashvili his life.

His coach and uncle, Felix, said his view of the track had been impeded by shades erected by organizers. “They put a shade up at that turn and despite the fact the track organizers were warned many times to sort it out, they didn’t,” he said.

The FIL Thursday promised a review of the terrible events, to be completed by the end of March.

The statement followed comments by Werner Hoeger, who competed in the Turin and Salt Lake Games for Venezuela, to the New York Times that he had warned the FIL last year the Whistler track was unsafe after he crashed and lost consciousness.

Whistler proved much faster than the designers had anticipated, and even before the Games began some of the sport’s most seasoned lugers were expressing their fears about the track and its 16 stomach-churning corners.

The International Olympic Committee has offered to help with government plans to construct a luge track in Bakuriani in honor of Kumaritashvili.

“It’s very difficult for such a small country as Georgia to overcome such a tragedy,” Saakashvili’s wife Sandra told reporters at the funeral.

Additional reporting by Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi; writing by Matt Robinson; editing by Andrew Roche