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Death of Olympics Luge Racer Mars Opening of Olympics

As the first day of competition at the Winter Olympics got underway Saturday in Vancouver, Canada, the luge track was foremost on the minds of many, after the death of an athlete in practice at the Whistler venue.

The icy luge track at Whistler, 130 kilometers from Vancouver, was reopened for training Saturday, a day after 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia died in a practice run when his sled went off the track and he hit a metal pole.

For safety reasons, international luge officials decided the start of all Olympic luge events will begin farther down the track.

That should result in a 10-percent reduction in the maximum speed. International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams defended the Whistler sliding venue.

"We're totally convinced that the sliding center is very, very safe," he said. "There have been 5,000 runs on that run [track]. And as far as I understand from the safety issues, from one of the better words - I think the technical term is "crash ratio" - I think is very good for that sliding center."

Investigations by the regional coroner, police, and the International Luge Federation (FIL) concluded it was a slider error, and there was no indication the tragedy was caused by track deficiencies.

But Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told reporters here he rejected that assessment, saying even before the Olympics began there was talk about potential danger at the fast Whistler track.

"I don't claim to know all the technical details, but one thing I know for sure, is that no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death, no sports mistake is supposed to be fatal," he said.

Mr. Saakashvili added that if this incident can lead to better safety and improved response to people expressing concerns, then maybe the death of his countryman is not in vain. He also said it was right for all Georgian Olympic athletes to go forward with their events.

"The Olympic movement is all about perseverance," he said. "It's all about unbroken spirit. It's about future and strength. And it's about no matter what the tragedies, it's about thinking about the future and carrying on."

One of the Georgian athletes who will carry on is figure skater Omar Japaridze, who sat alongside Mr. Saakashvili at the packed news conference in Vancouver.

"Of course we all are in a big shock," he said. "And we are in the lowest, but at the same the highest, point of our careers. Because of the compassion and the solidarity that we felt from everyone around us, despite this tragic event our team will carry on with the dream of Nodar and compete in his honor."

And Georgian President Saakashvili said after these Olympics they are thinking about building a new track named after Nodar Kumaritashvili in his hometown.

Related report by VOA's Kane Farabaugh