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Olympic luger from Georgia dies after crash

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) - Sliding faster than ever before, 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed into the wall entering the final straight of a training run and was killed after smashing into an unpadded steel girder.

Flirting with 145 kph (90 mph) speeds on a $100 million track, Kumaritashvili lost control and his body went airborne, arms and legs flailing over the opposite side of the track. Paramedics began working on Kumaritashvili within seconds, quickly starting chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, all to no avail.

The IOC said Kumaritashvili was pronounced dead at a trauma center in Whistler.

Less than an hour after the accident, a representative from each team was told the grim news. With that, tears began flowing across the close-knit sliding world and throughout the Olympic family.

Organizers dedicated Friday’s opening ceremony to Kumaritashvili.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said "it is with great sadness that we acknowledge this tragic loss."

Within an hour of the accident, an investigation was opened. Security officials closed access to the crash area and the remainder of the track for the rest of the day, and all further training runs scheduled for Friday were canceled.

Shortly after the Olympic cauldron was lit Friday night, officials from both the International Luge Federation and the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee announced changes to the track, including "a raising of the walls at the exit of Curve 16 and a change in the ice profile."

The statement did not offer any more specifics.

Kumaritashvili’s crash was studied on video, they said, concluding that he was offline coming out of Curve 15 and "did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into Curve 16."

"The technical officials of the FIL were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track," FIL and VANOC said in a statement.

VANOC also said the British Columbia coroners office and Royal Canadian Mounted Police would investigate the crash.

Men’s luge Olympians, who had been scheduled to finish their training Friday morning, have been given two extra practice runs Saturday. Women’s luge Olympians will train Saturday four hours later than scheduled.

The men’s competition will open at 5 p.m. (0100 GMT), as planned, with Runs 1 and 2 of the two-day event.

"It is a nervous situation," Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said. "It’s a big tragedy for all (of) luge. I hope, we all hope, it’s the first accident and the last accident in this race."

The danger of the Whistler track has been talked about for months - particularly after several countries were upset with restrictions over access to the facility by nations other than Canada, some noting it could lead to a safety issue. Some sliders, especially those from small luge federations, saw the world’s fastest track this week for the first time.

"When you are going that fast it just takes one slip and you can have that big mistake," United States doubles luger Christian Niccum said Thursday, when asked about track safety. "All of us are very calm going down, but it you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick reactions, that sled will steer. That’s the difference between luge and bobsled and skeleton, we’re riding on a very sharp edge and that sled will go exactly where we tell it to so you better be telling it the right things on the way down."

At the opening ceremony, Vancouver organizing chief John Furlong told athletes to carry the luger’s "Olympic dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your heart."

The 11-member Georgian delegation received a standing ovation as they entered the arena for the athletes’ march wearing black arm bands, black hats and black scarves.

The remaining athletes are staying in the games and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate.

Under giant Olympic rings near the medals plaza in downtown Whistler, mourners placed candles and flowers around a photograph of Kumaritashvili, on his sled and barreling down the track. Around the photo, an inscription read: "In Memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, May he rest in peace."

Kumaritashvili is the fourth competitor to die at the Winter Games, all in training, and the first since 1992.

Crashes happen often in luge - at least 12 sliders have wrecked just this week on the daunting Whistler surface. Still, some who have been around tracks their entire lives couldn’t remember someone actually being thrown over the wall.

"It’s a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said, clearly shaken after seeing Kumaritashvili tended to furiously by medical workers.

Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn’t believe the Whistler track was unsafe.

"People have the opinion it is dangerous but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe," he said. "My opinion is that it’s not any more dangerous than anywhere else."

This was Kumaritashvili’s second crash during training for the games, the first coming Wednesday in the opening session. He also failed to finish his second of six practice runs.

Sliding diagonally, Kumaritashvili smashed into a corner entering the final straight feet-first. He was knocked off his sled and sailed in the other direction, coming to rest on a metal walkway after his upper body smashed into the post. The first rescue worker just happened to be nearby and was at his side within three seconds.

"His competitive spirit and dedication to sports excellence will be remembered and honored during the games," Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said.

This would have been Kumaritashvili’s first Olympics. He competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.

Earlier in the day, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled on Curve 11. Zoeggeler came off his sled and held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.

Training days in Whistler have been crash-filled. A Romanian woman was knocked unconscious and at least four Americans have had serious trouble just getting down the track.

"RIP Nodar Kumaritashvili," American skeleton athlete Kyle Tress, who did not qualify for the Olympic team, wrote on his Twitter feed. "Let’s never forget how dangerous these sports can be."

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