Hours before yesterday’s opening ceremonies, the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili dampened the Olympic spirit. News of the tragedy sent shock waves threw this city ready to celebrate and raised questions about the safety of the luge track in Whistler.

The danger of the Whistler track has been talked about for months – particularly after several countries, including the United States, were upset with restrictions over access to the facility by nations other than Canada, some noting it could lead to a safety issue. Some sliders, especially those from small luge federations, saw the world’s fastest track this week for the first time.

Speeding down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre at nearly 90 miles per hour, Kumaritashvili, 21, lost control of his sled, flew over the track wall, and slammed into an unpadded steel pole near the finish line. Images of the crash show Kumaritashvili hitting his back first, then falling to the ground, where he lay motionless as medical personnel rushed to his aid and performed chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Paramedics and doctors could not revive the luger, who was airlifted to a Whistler trauma center and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

“We are heartbroken beyond words,’’ said John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

Added emotional International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge: “This is a very difficult day. The IOC is in deep mourning. Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion.’’

Rogge spoke with the president of Georgia and the head of the Georgian Olympic delegation, and was in contact with Kumaritashvili’s family. Despite the tragedy, the Georgian Olympic team, including Kumaritashvili’s cousin, who is the luge coach, decided it would remain in Vancouver and compete.

Before the ceremonies began, two screens inside BC Place showed the message: “Tonight’s ceremony is dedicated to the memory of Georgian Olympic athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili.’’ When the small, somber Georgian delegation was announced during the parade of nations, the crowd rose to its feet in a show of respect and sympathy. The Georgian athletes wore black armbands and there was a black ribbon attached to the national flag. Later, before the athletes’ oath, there was a long moment of silence in memory of Kumaritashvili, during which the Olympic and Canadian flags were lowered to half staff.

Sources: The Boston Globe, The SanFrancisco Chronicle

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