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A Beijing Olympic luge racer honors his cousin who died at the Vancouver Games

Georgia's Saba Kumaritashvili competes in the men's singles luge event at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Yanqing on February 5, 2022.
Daniel Mihailescu
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AFP via Getty Images
Georgia's Saba Kumaritashvili competes in the men's singles luge event at the Yanqing National Sliding Centre during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Yanqing on February 5, 2022.

BEIJING — When Saba Kumaritashvili took to the ice at the Yanqing sled-racing venue in the mountains near Beijing on Saturday he was facing some of the best lugers in the world.

He was also facing a tragedy that has haunted his family for 12 years.

At the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, Kumaritashvili's cousin Nodar was on a training run at a track built in Whistler, British Columbia.

In the final turn, going nearly 90 mph, he flipped off his sled, over the wall and into a steel post outside the track.

NPR reported at the time that the death of the 21-year-old luger from the Republic of Georgia left Olympic officials "in deep mourning" and "heartbroken beyond words."

Saba Kumaritashvili, also now 21-years-old, said despite the loss, luge racing remains an important family tradition.

"I think about Nodar. I think about him all the time. Everyone in my family is in luge. After Nodar, I didn't want luge to die in Georgia. I wanted to keep it going."

Saba Kumaritashvili of Team Georgia reacts after sliding during the Men's Singles Luge heats on day one of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
Adam Pretty / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Saba Kumaritashvili of Team Georgia reacts after sliding during the Men's Singles Luge heats on day one of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

The Kumaritashvili family has been devoted to luge racing since the early 1970s, when a family patriarch Aleko Kumaritashvili helped build Georgia's first luge track and then served as national coach.

Saba Kumarisashvili said he wasn't deterred by the deadly accident in Vancouver and his parents encouraged him to take up the sport.

"I wasn't afraid. I wanted to be in the Olympics to race," he said.

After two runs in Beijing, the Georgian is far enough back in the standings that it's certain he won't medal at these Olympics. But he said the trip and the chance to compete were still valuable.

"I'm very happy," he said. "I've done what I needed. I was emotional, I was so nervous, but I feel very proud of myself."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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