BAKURIANI, Georgia — To reach this tiny skiing village, carved into the north side of the Trialeti mountain range, one must weave through a long progression of switchbacks rising more than a mile above sea level. When it is snowing — which is often — the trip from the capital city of Tbilisi can take nearly three hours.
Dodo Kumaritashvili makes the journey back and forth almost every week. Her daughter has a baby girl, so Dodo goes to Tbilisi to help take care of her granddaughter. Upon returning home one weekend recently, Dodo entered her house and called out, “I’m home, son.” Then she began cooking.
Dodo’s son, Nodar, has been dead for four years. But she makes food for him every day, usually fruit or cake or meat but never soup, not even on the coldest days. Her son hated soup. When she finishes cooking, she brings the food into her son’s room and sits among the photographs and trophies and posters on the walls. After a few hours, she clears the food away and gives it to children who live nearby.
Nodar Kumaritashvili died at 21 in a luge crash on the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It was a tragedy that stunned the sports world — he was the first athlete to die in Olympic training or competition since 1964 — and the accident compelled organizers for this month’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to re-evaluate the design of their luge track. The Sochi track, which will hold its first competition Saturday, is intentionally slower, with an unprecedented three uphill sections.
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Although the accident made headlines four years ago, Kumaritashvili’s death did not, by any palpable measure, linger. Dismay over the loss of a relatively anonymous athlete was quickly hushed by Olympic officials, who wanted viewers to turn their attention back to the Games. The luge competition continued on schedule.
Here, though, it is as if time stopped. On a recent Sunday, Dodo Kumaritashvili sat outside her son’s room and peered through a crack in the door. The room was quiet. The house was still.
“I have not slept since that night,” she said. “I can’t. They give me pills, even now. I still cannot fall asleep on my own.”
In the four years since her son died, Dodo has tried to kill herself twice. Once, she said, she got out of bed in the middle of a sleepless night and simply walked outside into the freezing darkness. She did not stop for shoes or a coat.
“I was just going to walk until I died,” she said.
Another time, in Tbilisi, she tried to open a car door and jump out while the vehicle was moving. At first, she said, she was angry that she did not succeed in her suicide attempts; now she simply accepts her fate.
“There is no second, no minute, where I can escape this tragedy,” she said. “Not even 1 percent remains of the person I was. I force myself to smile, to behave — but whenever something happens that is good, I come back and tell the story to Nodar. To my son.”
A friend’s grief
About two minutes before he watched his friend die, Levan Gureshidze remembers being happy. He had just finished a training run on the luge track at Whistler Sliding Centre. The opening ceremony of the Olympics was a few hours away. Nodar, his childhood friend, was coming down the mountain behind him.
Gureshidze tracked Kumaritashvili’s run from just outside the finish area. When Kumaritashvili made it safely through the 13th turn — an insidious swivel so perilous it was nicknamed “50-50” because the chances of crashing there were little more than a coin flip — Gureshidze looked away. Then he heard a strange noise.
There was a buzz coming from the crowd up the track. Gureshidze craned his neck but could not see Kumaritashvili’s sled. Then he looked at the video screen alongside the track and felt a wave of nausea; race officials had turned off the cameras.
Gureshidze sprinted up the stairs alongside the track until he found Kumaritashvili lying on his back outside the track. Kumaritashvili’s left leg was stuck up in the air. His left foot was propped on the wall. His body was not moving.
Gureshidze tried to get closer. Track officials told him to stay back. Someone was giving Kumaritashvili cardiopulmonary resuscitation. All around Gureshidze, people were crying. He kept jostling, trying to get nearer to his friend, but no one would let him.
That night, there was a moment of silence for Kumaritashvili at the opening ceremony. There was a standing ovation for the Georgian delegation when it walked into the arena.
Gureshidze was not there. He withdrew from the Olympics and a few days later flew from Vancouver to Frankfurt, Germany, and from Frankfurt to Munich and from Munich to Tbilisi, staring out the window through two nights of time zones. It seemed like the whole village of Bakuriani had come to the airport to greet the flight. When Dodo saw Gureshidze, she embraced him and sobbed into his ear. “Where is Nodar?” she said. Gureshidze turned his head toward the plane; he had flown nearly 7,000 miles with his friend’s body in the cargo hold.
Gureshidze looks at old photographs of himself and Kumaritashvili participating in a youth luge tournament, getting ready to leave for Vancouver, laughing.
“We were friends since we were 2,” Gureshidze said. “Kindergarten, primary school — the same classes and then, later, the same sport.”
Kumaritashvili and Gureshidze loved skiing, but luge was in their blood. Their fathers competed in the Soviet era. Felix, Kumaritashvili’s uncle, was a top luger as well; he now coaches Georgia’s luge team. Felix’s father, Aleko, is credited with introducing the sport to Georgia.
Kumaritashvili and Gureshidze knew the history. They also knew the difficulty of their path: the Georgian Olympic Committee offers little funding for luge, and Georgia does not have a track for training.
“The first trainings took place in Germany and Austria,” Gureshidze said. “The road trip used to take four to five days. Especially in winter, it took longer. We were going through Turkey, then Greece, from Greece to Italy, from Italy to Austria and Germany. Then we would have to go back the same way.”
Still, they dreamed. They watched the 2006 Turin Games together, chattering to each other about the Russian, Albert Demtschenko, who won the silver medal. They increased their training, traveling continually. Kumaritashvili qualified first for the Vancouver Games. Gureshidze claimed his place later, joining Kumaritashvili only a few weeks before the games.
“He was so happy,” Gureshidze said. “We were supposed to do this together.”
Gureshidze is conflicted about his future in luge.
“I can’t say I love this sport anymore,” he said.
Of the three Olympic sliding sports — luge, bobsled and skeleton — luge is generally considered the most dangerous. Riders lie back on their sleds and zoom down icy tracks while peering through the space between their feet. To steer, they shift the runners of the sled with their legs or shoulders.
Generally, speeds are between 80 and 90 mph. Crashes are not uncommon, but according to luge’s governing body, which is known by its French acronym, FIL, the crash rate for Whistler’s track was in line with other tracks around the world. In the three years before the 2010 Olympics, there were 203 crashes in more than 30,000 runs in luge, bobsled and skeleton, FIL said.
Still, the track at Whistler was different. Speeds were higher among all riders and, at least anecdotally, the chance of a serious crash seemed greater. Armin Zoeggeler, the Italian legend who has won two Olympic gold medals, had a rare crash on the same day as Kumaritashvili’s accident. A female luger from Romania had a bad crash two days earlier and was knocked unconscious.
A year before the Olympics, when a luger set a world record of 95.65 mph at Whistler, Josef Fendt, the president of FIL, was blunt about his concern.
“It makes me worry,” he said then.
After Kumaritashvili’s crash, FIL moved the start of the Olympic competitions lower but said it was doing so not for safety reasons; rather, the organization said, it was because it would be emotionally difficult for the athletes if the start remained at the top.
Members of Kumaritashvili’s family point to that decision as proof that the Whistler track was unsafe. They contend that FIL’s investigation into Kumaritashvili’s crash, released in April 2010, placed an unfair amount of blame on him.
According to the report, Kumaritashvili committed “driving errors” that led to his sled’s catapulting out of control. Generally, when a luge hits a wall, it either breaks or pushes the rider toward the opposite wall. In either situation, the rider stays inside the track. In Kumaritashvili’s case, however, he flew out of the track and slammed into a metal support pole.
Christian Niccum, an American luger from Woodinville who will compete in Sochi in his third Games, said: “It’s such a terrible thing to say it’s his fault; it’s so much easier to say it’s someone else’s fault or the track’s fault. But in the end, he’s the one on that sled.”
Niccum added: “His sled didn’t fly out; he let go of his sled. That’s kind of Luge 101.”