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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Levan Gureshidze tried to find the words to honor his fallen friend, but they would not come. As he sat surrounded by a small group of reporters primarily from former Soviet nations, Gureshidze's hands shook and his face creased. "I want to tell you about Nodar," he said. "But …"
With that, the battle to hold back the tears was lost, and Gureshidze held his face in his hands and sobbed.
Early Friday morning, Gureshidze and his roommate in the Olympic Village, Nodar Kumaritashvili, both luge sliders from Georgia, ate breakfast together and joked with other athletes. A few hours later, Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old due to compete in his first Winter Olympics, was dead after a horrific crash in which he was thrown from the Whistler track and collided with a metal post.
The Georgian delegation is a small one, with just eight competitors and a handful of administrators, including Kumaritashvili's father, Felix. In normal circumstances, the team would have been afforded little more than the standard polite applause as it emerged from the bowels of BC Place and into the arena for the Opening Ceremony.
Not this time. As the crowd rose as one for a rousing and dignified ovation, there were solemn expressions from the Georgians, bowed heads and more tears.
There was a dignity about their grief, amid a tragedy they must still be unable to comprehend. They have willingly embraced the sympathies of the Olympic family, but there is an unmistakable defiance that they want to honor their teammate in their way.
Early suggestions that the team would leave the Games were quickly dismissed, resoundingly knocked back at a brief meeting among the athletes. To one athlete, there was a sense that the only right and proper way to serve the memory of a young man who never to got to compete was to do just that.
"We want to continue through this," said flagbearer Iason Abramashvili just before the ceremony. "He was our colleague and our friend. He was a competitor and he believed in competition. That is what we will do and our hearts will be with him. We will always think of him."
Georgia is a small nation of 4.3 million people that prides itself on its sport. A few years back, there was so much dismay at a decline in national sporting performance that the government started doling out passports to foreign athletes to allow them to compete. In Beijing, there were Brazilian beach volleyball players competing under the Georgian flag, and here in Vancouver there is an American ice dancer.
Sport and politics do mix in Georgia, and minister for sport Nikolas Rurua wasted no time in demanding that the International Olympic Committee launch an immediate investigation into the safety of the luge track that claimed Kumaritashvili's life.
"I know that that particular venue has been shut down," said Rurua. "An investigation is under way. There were similar accidents at this spot. Before events in the future, it must be very thoroughly studied. I hope this process will be carried through.
"There were questions asked by other athletes even before this tragic accident. I hope these details will be studied. It's too early for me to jump to conclusions."
Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili and prime minister Nikoloz Gilauri also took a heavy role, speaking with the Georgian athletes in person and via telephone. Throughout the conversation, there was a feeling that the show must go on, just like it did in Beijing when there was talk of Georgia pulling out. Back then it was because Russian tanks were rolling over the borders into Georgia; this time it's because a 21-year-old far from home lost his life in the name of sport.
The end result is the same. "Like in Beijing, Georgia stays," said Saakashvili. "It is the right thing to do to honor the Olympics and our proud countryman."
As the Olympic movement has indulged itself in over-commercialization over the past couple of decades, the borderlines of the Olympic spirit have sometimes become blurred.
And yet, it is through a disaster such as this that the reality of the Games still possessing a unique kind of solidarity shines through.
Team USA flagbearer Mark Grimmette, also a luge competitor, felt it. He pointed to a pin on his shoulder in honor of Kumaritashvili as he carried the Star-Spangled Banner.
"Nodar and his family will be in our thoughts and wishes as Olympic athletes," said Grimmette. "Especially within the luge family, it is a very sad day."
The luge community is a tight-knit one and it has been rocked by this tragedy in the lead-up to the men's event. Doubts remain over whether the competition will even be allowed to take place due to safety fears. Athletes and coaches are expected to push for the men's luge to be switched to the shorter women's course in order to slightly reduce speeds.
Such a course of action would be fitting and appropriate, as was the IOC tribute on opening night.
The Opening Ceremony began with a dedication to the memory of Kumaritashvili, and it ended with a minute of silence in his honor before the cauldron was lit, signifying the start of the Games.