A nation that had hoped to watch one of its most promising young athletes compete in the Olympics gathered instead Saturday to mourn him, more than a week after the luger was thrown to his death in a practice run at the Vancouver Games.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, died after slamming into a pole on the luge course hours before the opening ceremony. He lost control of his sled, shot off course and hit the pole at nearly 145 km/h.

Thousands of mourners flocked to the yard of his family's two-storey brick home in Bakuriani, Georgia, for a traditional funeral feast. Inside, the body lay in a coffin, surrounded by Orthodox Christian icons and burning candles.

A small choir sang Georgian chants and a portrait of the athlete hung on the wall.

His father, David Kumaritashvili, stared at the portrait and said, "I wanted to throw a wedding feast for you. Instead, we have a funeral."

The luger is to be buried in the cemetery of a tiny church in the snowy alpine village, Georgia's top winter sports retreat. President Mikhail Saakashvili attended the funeral. Earlier, family and friends poured red wine in the grave as part of the burial rite in the Caucasus Mountains nation with centuries-old winemaking traditions.

Kumaritashvili's friends and family said that despite his age, he was an experienced athlete who came from a dynasty of lugers. One of his relatives pioneered the sport in Georgia, and his father and two uncles won multiple awards in the sport in Soviet and international championships.

Kumaritashvili participated in two World Cup competitions and was regarded as one of the country's most promising athletes.

An investigation found that Kumaritashvili was late in coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate. But his family and others have insisted he was experienced, and have blamed his death on the course's design.

Concerns about Whistler course

Concerns about the course had been raised for months. Many worried that the $100-million-plus venue was too technically demanding, and that only Canada's sliders would have enough time to adapt to it during practice. Kumaritashvili had completed only 26 runs on the Whistler course, while Canadian lugers ran the track hundreds of times.

In his hometown, the athlete was a hero, especially to the children who looked up to him.

Neighbour Dmitry Laliyev, 4, had asked Kumaritashvili to bring him a toy rifle back from Canada. The athlete's parents found the toy in Nodar's luggage after his death and gave it to Laliyev.

The boy played with the toy Saturday among the crowd of mourners.

"Nodar brought me this," the boy said, pointing at the plastic rifle.

The boy's father, Gogi Laliyev, said when the athlete travelled he always brought home presents for Dmitry.

"I told Dmitry, 'Nodar promised to get you the rifle, so he got it for you,'" Laliyev said, trying to hold back his tears.