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Sports dignitaries pay tribute to Georgian luger

BAKURIANI, Georgia (AP) — The head of the Vancouver Olympics, an Olympic gold medalist and other dignitaries attended a ceremony Tuesday at the grave of the Georgian luger who died during a practice run at the games.

Vancouver organizing committee president John Furlong, luge gold medalist Felix Loch, International Luge Federation president Josef Fendt and other athletes and officials came to the hometown of Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died hours before the opening of the games on Feb. 12.

The ceremony was held 40 days after Kumaritashvili's death, in line with the rites of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

An Orthodox priest read a prayer and local men sang traditional Georgian chants over Kumaritashvili's grave in the cemetery of a tiny church in this mountain village, Georgia's top winter sports resort.

The athlete's father, David Kumaritashvili, said in a speech at the ceremony that his son's death shouldn't discourage young men from practicing luge.

"The tragic death of my son mustn't stop the development of that sport," he said.

Georgian Olympic Committee chief Georgy Natsvlishvili said a luge track will be built in Bakuriani in the luger's memory.

The International Olympic Committee has said it will help fund the track's construction in the village that was formerly a winter sports training center for Soviet athletes. Bakuriani was part of the short-lived bid from the neighboring town of Borjomi for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Before traveling to Georgia, Furlong told a news conference in Vancouver on Sunday that he considered it his obligation to meet with the athlete's family

"This obviously was a very major thing that happened here and it's important for us to be there to the end," he said.

Kumaritashvili died when he lost control of his sled at nearly 90 mph, flew off the course and slammed into a trackside steel pole. An investigation by the luge federation concluded that Kumaritashvili was late in coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate. But the luger's family has blamed his death on the course's design.

The Kumaritashvilis decorated a room at their house in the athlete's memory, placing his sports uniform on his bed next to the flag of Georgia.

The athlete was a hero for his hometown, widely admired for his sports achievements, high spirits and generosity.

A 4-year old neighbor, Dmitry Laliyev, on Tuesday proudly carried a toy rifle that he had asked the luger to bring as a present from Canada. The athlete's parents found the toy in his luggage after his death.