Athletes, audience pay tribute to Georgian luger

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By Deborah Charles

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Olympic athletes wore black armbands at the Opening Ceremony on Friday to pay tribute to a Georgian luge competitor who died in a crash hours before the Vancouver Games opened.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, dressed in a somber dark suit instead of his traditional winter parka, announced that Nodar Kumaritashvili had died earlier in the day following a training accident.

"It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the tragic loss of Nodar Kumaritashvili," a visibly upset Rogge said, standing alongside Vancouver Organising Committee chief John Furlong.

"We extend our deepest sympathies to his family, his friends, his teammates and countrymen."

Furlong urged the Olympians to "carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your hearts."

The Georgian National Olympic Committee and its athletes wore black arm bands, black scarves and had a black patch on their flag as they walked soberly into the stadium.

Many athletes from other nations also wore black armbands to recognize the 21-year-old luger's untimely death.

The crowd stood in respect and applauded the Georgians as they slowly made their way around the stadium.

Kumaritashvili was making his final practice slide before Saturday's competition when he lost control at 90mph on the exit of the 16th corner and was launched over the rim of the track before crumpling into an unpadded pillar.

He was flown down the mountain by helicopter where he died in hospital.

(Reporting by Deborah Charles, editing by Jon Bramley)