Road To The Olympic Games

Georgian luger feared final curve: father

In a call home shortly before he was thrown from his sled and killed on an Olympic training run, Nodar Kumaritashvili told his father that he was afraid of the lightning-quick track in Whistler.

In a call home shortly before he was thrown from his sled and killed on an Olympic training run, Nodar Kumaritashvili told his father that he was afraid of the lightning-quick track in Whistler.

"He told me, 'Dad, I really fear that [final] curve,"' David Kumaritashvili, a former luger himself, told The Associated Press from his home on the snow-covered slopes of Georgia's top ski resort.

"I'm a former athlete myself, and I told him, 'You just take a slower start,"' recalled Kumaritashvili, who at times struggled to hold back tears. "But he responded, 'Dad, what kind of thing you are teaching me? I have come to the Olympics to try to win."'

Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, died during Friday practice when he lost control of his sled and slammed into a trackside steel pole at a speed of about 140 km/h.

"I haven't and I won't see that footage [of the accident]," his father said. "I still can't fully realize that he's dead."

His face lined and shoulders bent in anguish, David Kumaritashvili paused to recall details of one of his last conversations with his son.

"He told me, 'I will either win or die,"' he said. "But that was youthful bravado, he couldn't be seriously talking about death."

Concerns about the course had been raised earlier. There were worries that the $100-million-plus venue was too technically demanding, and that only the host nation's sliders would have enough practice time to adapt.

"They tested that track on my son," the elder Kumaritashvili said.

In a joint statement, the luge federation and Vancouver Olympic officials blamed the accident on the athlete, saying Kumaritashvili was late coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate.

His 46-year-old father angrily rejected that statement.

"My son was training since he was 14, he ran tracks in France, Austria and Canada, and he never suffered an injury," said Kumaritashvili, a former luge champion of the Soviet Union. "He has passed through all stages of the World Cup and made it to the Olympics, he couldn't have done that if he were an inexperienced athlete. Anyone can make mistake and break a leg or suffer some other injury. But to die!"

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has also criticized organizers, saying that an athlete's mistake shouldn't result in his death.

Saakashvili called Kumaritashvili's father and promised him that his son's body will be flown home as quickly as formalities allow. No date has been set for a funeral yet.

A steady stream of neighbours and friends came to Kumaritashvili's home Monday, bearing flowers and condolences for the family.

The luger was the pride of his hometown, where he was known for his high spirits and generosity. The village of 1,500 was one of the sites Georgia proposed in its failed bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

David Gureshidze, a 28-year old friend of Kumaritashvili, admired the young athlete's commitment to his sport.

"I have never seen such a dedicated person. Sports was everything to him," Gureshidze said. "I taught him skiing, and in several months he was skiing better than me."

Gureshidze said that Nodar was well liked by children of the village, and had taught many of them to ski.

"He spent most of his time abroad, but he would never miss a chance to visit home and would bring gifts to everyone," Gureshidze said.

The athlete's 20-year-old cousin, Givi Kharazishvili, said Nodar was driven by high ambitions. "He had a dream of winning the Olympics," he said.

The Kumaritashvilis' neighbour, Gogi Laliyev, said the athlete was fond of Laliyev's four-year old son and promised to bring him a toy rifle from Vancouver.

"We told the boy that Nodar won't come back, and he asked why," Laliyev said. "We said that he died and my son asked, 'Won't he come back to life?' We said no, and he broke into tears."

A steel cable slung between the two trees in Laliyev's yard served as an exercise tool for Kumaritashvili, who walked the cable to perfect his balance.

While maintaining a rigorous training and competition schedule, Kumaritashvili graduated from the Tbilisi Polytechnic University, where he received a bachelor's degree in economics last year.

His mother was keen to see him marry but between his studies and his sport he had little time to date, his family said.