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Young luger's body begins journey home

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — With the head of the Vancouver Games helping carry the casket to its hearse, the young Georgian luger killed in a horrific crash that shook the Olympics began a long final journey Monday to his heartbroken hometown.

The body of Nodar Kumaritashvili was flown from Vancouver on its way to Germany after a candlelit memorial service during which members of the Georgian Olympic delegation filed past to touch their fallen teammate.

Kumaritashvili's body is to arrive Wednesday in Bakuriani, a small ski resort of about 1,500 people that has been plunged into mourning by the accident. It is to be met by Patriarch Ilia II, the Georgian spiritual leader.

"For every family in the village it's a tragedy," said Ramaz Goglidze, a senior Georgian Olympic official, tears streaming down his face after the private service. "Even people who never met him cry all day. Everyone."

Three Georgian athletes, including figure skater Otar Japaridze, wearing a black armband on his red team jacket, attended the memorial, filing past the open brown casket. Kumaritashvili's uncle and coach, Felix, broke into tears outside the funeral home.

Vancouver organizing committee head John Furlong was among 10 people who carried the casket out of the building and placed it in the back of a gray hearse. He shook hands with each of 14 Vancouver motorcycle police officers who escorted the hearse away after the service.

"There were no speeches," said European Olympic Committees president Patrick Hickey. "People had their own private moment, reflecting on the situation. Everyone was so unified standing around sharing in the sorrow."

Furlong said organizers helped expedite Canadian formalities so the luger's body could be returned home as soon as possible.

"It was extremely moving and heartbreaking to be there," Furlong said. "We did the best we could to bring the appropriate environment to bring closure to what happened here."

Kumaritashvili died hours before Friday's opening ceremony when he lost control of his sled during a training run on the lightning-fast track in Whistler and slammed into a trackside steel pole.

In Bakuriani, the Kumaritashvilis' neighbor, Gogi Laliyev, said the athlete was fond of Laliyev's 4-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."

The body began its journey home as the Olympics, and the sport of luge in particular, struggled back to something close to normal.

Skeleton athletes trained for the first time Monday on the track that claimed the young athlete's life. Most passed up the chance to take one training run from a lower position and started from the top of the track, as originally planned, and as Kumaritashvili did.

The leader of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, Darrin Steele, said he believes the Olympic track is safe but the Georgian's death is a "reminder of the inherent danger" of sliding.

A top official of the International Luge Federation said he had met with Russian organizers and was confident a slower track would be constructed for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The track is "still going to be high speed, but it is going to be lower," secretary general Svein Romstad told Associated Press Television News.

Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi organizing committee, said existing plans called for the track to be roughly 6 to 10 mph slower than Whistler's. Kumaritashvili was traveling nearly 90 mph when he lost control of his sled.

"Construction will start this spring, and we will certainly consider any international federation recommendation, if there are any," Chernyshenko said in a statement to the AP.

At Whistler, lugers are starting lower on the course. Padding now wraps steel girders that remain exposed beyond a wooden wall erected atop the curve where Kumaritashvili flew off his sled.

The women's gold medal will be awarded Tuesday and the doubles' Wednesday, ending an Olympic luge competition marred by the tragedy.

Kumaritashvili's death is still under investigation by the British Columbia Coroner's Service. An autopsy was performed, but the coroner's office said results would be provided to the family only, with a public report in about two months.

After recommendations by medical and legal experts, the chief coroner will then decide whether to hold an inquest into the death.

The young luger's father, David Kumaritashvili, told the AP in Georgia on Monday that his son worried the Whistler track — the fastest in the world — was too dangerous.

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

The elder Kumaritashvili said he encouraged his son to start slower. "But he responded: 'Dad, what kind of thing you are teaching me? I have come to the Olympics to try to win.'"

The International Luge Federation has taken criticism for blaming the accident on Kumaritashvili's own tactical handling of the course, not deficiencies in the track. Organizers also said they altered the course not to make it safer but with athletes' emotions in mind.

The elder Kumaritashvili said his son had trained since age 14 and run tracks all over the world without suffering an injury.

"He has passed through all stages of the World Cup and made it to the Olympics," he said. "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!"