VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — For the second straight Olympics, athletes from the country of Georgia are in mourning.
Only hours after their teammate Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a horrific crash on the daunting Whistler luge track, seven grim-faced Georgians marched in Friday night's opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games.
They honored his memory by wearing black armbands, by decorating their nation's flag with a black ribbon — and by staying at the games.
"I really appreciated their decision to stay in the games, to continue to compete, and also the fact that they showed up at the Olympic opening ceremony," a somber Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said after meeting with the team.
Two years ago at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, Georgia's athletes faced a similar wrenching decision. With their country fighting a war with Russia at the beginning of the games, the 35 athletes watched the violence anxiously, worried about Georgians dying at home and wondered whether they should leave China.
They decided to stay and compete, and ended up winning two gold medals and two bronze, all in wrestling.
"That was also a very tragic moment, but then the Georgian team decided to continue participation. That was their decision," Saakashvili said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"This was their decision now as well, and I think this is in the spirit of the Olympics," he added.
Earlier Friday, Nikolos Rurua, Georgia's minister of culture and sport, told a news conference that the Georgians "will compete and dedicate their performance to their fallen comrade."
Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled, went over the track wall and struck an unpadded steel pole near the finish line. Doctors were unable to revive him.
The 21-year-old luger was mourned across the Olympics on Friday. Olympic flags at the IOC hotel in Vancouver were lowered to half-staff. At Whistler Mountain, candles and bunches of flowers were placed beside a picture of Kumaritashvili under a sculpture of the Olympic rings.
At the opening ceremony, which was dedicated to Kumaritashvili, the crowd of tens of thousands of spectators rose to their feet in a standing ovation as the Georgians entered. Then they held a moment of silence.
A visibly moved IOC president Jacques Rogge had earlier called him "a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion."
Georgia "has gone through an awful lot in the last three, four years. It's a small nation of 5 million people, and the pride they had in representing their country here at the Olympics, and now to suffer this loss is just tragic," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said.
Rurua said Kumaritashvili was from the mountainous Bakuriani region of Georgia, the country's center for winter sports dating to the Soviet era. The slider's father is president of the Georgian luge federation and his cousin is a coach for the team, VANOC officials said.
Vancouver organizers and the International Luge Federation called the accident "extremely exceptional" and said it was triggered by Kumaritashvili's failure to compensate for coming late out of the next-to-last curve, not by "deficiencies in the track."
But Georgian officials stressed that Kumaritashvili was an experienced athlete.
"People push limits. Obviously this is a very competitive sport. You cannot call him inexperienced," Saakashvili said. "He went through lots of competitions, Nodar was rapidly advancing. For somebody of his age you could see that he was progressing."
Saakashvili announced that a luge facility named for Kumaritashvili will be built in his hometown "not only to honor his name but also to pave the way for other kids to get into the sport."