Luger was afraid of a turn, father says

Updated: February 15, 2010, 8:11 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The athlete killed on the luge track Friday told his father a day before he died in a training run that he was scared of one of the turns, David Kumaritashvili said.

"He had trained there before, he had trained there before," Kumaritashvili told ABC News on Monday in a telephone interview from his home in Bakuriani, Georgia. "That's why he told me, 'I'm afraid of this spot.' "

Kumaritashvili said he had offered his 21-year-old son encouragement in a phone conversation.

"I'm a luger as well and that's why I told him, 'Brake, brake, don't risk it,' " the elder Kumaritashvili said. "He said, 'No Dad, I will risk it, what will be will be.' And he took the risk."

[+] EnlargeNodar Kumaritashvili
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeA private service was held Monday for Nodar Kumaritashvili in Vancouver. "This could have happened to anyone," his father told ABC News.

International Luge Federation officials moved the start back 600 feet for the men's Sunday final, changes they said were made with the "emotional component" of athletes in mind following Kumaritashvili's death.

A wooden wall to cover the row of steel beams he hit at nearly 90 mph was also built.

They called the accident "extremely exceptional," and said it was triggered by Kumaritashvili's failure to compensate for coming late out of the next-to-last curve, not by "deficiencies in the track."

"It has a small sharp turn, 150 [km/h] was a too fast for that turn," Kumaritashvili said. "At such a speed, it should be a bit longer. For such a speed it should be longer -- it was too short, where he fell. "

Kumaritashvili, a Soviet-era luger himself, seemed to have mixed feelings about the cause of the crash.

"Maybe my son was at fault, but if the beams weren't there this wouldn't have happened, he would be alive," Kumaritashvili said. "This could have happened to anyone, anyone could have made that mistake. That's what I think."

After studying the crash on video, luge federation officials said it was determined Kumaritashvili was offline coming out of Curve 15 and "did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into Curve 16."

"I didn't see it on TV but the guys said he flew like a bullet, he had such a strong start," Kumaritashvili told ABC News. "He probably thought, 'I may as well try, whatever will happen, will happen. I'll place in the first 10 or I'll die,' that's what I think he must have thought."

A private service was held Monday for Kumaritashvili at a Vancouver funeral home.

Several Georgian athletes and team officials, as well as international and Vancouver organizers, attended the brief memorial.

A brown casket was placed in a gray hearse and was driven away with a police escort of 14 motorcycles.

Later in the day, the body was to be taken on a flight to Germany and then flown to Georgia on Wednesday for burial in his hometown of Bakuriani, a small ski resort about 110 miles from Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic.

Flowers and memorial messages piled up at the athletes' village in Whistler, not far from where 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 Whistler track, considered the fastest in the world, 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.

The community naturally is sad, because we want people to be safe here. We hate to leave like this -- so young and so suddenly.

-- Jerry Desmond, pastor of Our Lady
of the Mountains Catholic Church

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.

Kumaritashvili'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. 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.

Clive Woodward, performance director for the British Olympic Committee, told a BBC Radio program the track was safe.

[+] EnlargeNodar Kumaritashvili
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAn IOC executive board member said it was too early to draw any long-term lessons from the crash.

"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."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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