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VANCOUVER 2010 / THE DEATH OF NODAR KUMARITASHVILI

Games still reeling from shock of luger's death, VANOC chief says

Headshot of Gary Mason

On the fourth day of the Olympics, John Furlong helped carry the casket of a young athlete to a waiting hearse.

It wasn't a job that the head of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee ever imagined he would perform during the 2010 Winter Games. And, after attending a funeral service for Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who was killed on Friday during a training run, the chief of the Games remains shaken and heartbroken by it all.

In his first extensive interview on the subject, Furlong told The Globe and Mail yesterday that Kumaritashvili's death deeply affected his organization. A shock, he admitted, from which the Games, and the people putting them on, are still attempting to recover.

"There's no question it set us back on our heels," Furlong said. "It's been a tough, tough thing to bounce back from. But you have no choice. You have to forge ahead, while never forgetting that a wonderful young man with his entire future ahead of him lost his life."

A small funeral service was held for Kumaritashvili yesterday in Vancouver. About 60 people attended, including IOC and VANOC officials, members of the Georgian team, other Olympic athletes and a handful of Georgian Canadians who brought flowers and candles.

"It was just so sad," Furlong said. "It was an open casket, which I guess is tradition in Georgia. It was very emotional obviously. I spoke to the boy's uncle, who was his coach. I just said: 'I don't have the adequate words to express how I feel, but if there is anything I can do, or members of our team can do, you have to let me know.' "

Furlong was joined as a pallbearer by the two doctors who had done everything possible in their attempts to save the young man's life. Two IOC officials helped carry the casket; the other pallbearers were from Georgia.

"The community where Nodar was from [Bakuriani] is a small town of maybe 1,500 people," Furlong said. "It has a real winter sports tradition. He was one of three kids on the Georgian team who were from the same class in the school there. The whole town is just shattered.

"One thing they are hoping comes from this as a legacy is to build a luge track in the town. It's something they have been trying to do for a long time and now they hope that one will be built in Nodar's memory."

For the first time, Furlong talked about how he felt when he received the news of the accident at the Whistler Sliding Centre. And what happened next.

"[VANOC executive-vice president] Dave Cobb called me and told me there had been a terrible accident at the centre, that it was extremely serious and there was every chance the athlete was going to die," Furlong recalled.

"I felt sick. I felt like someone had phoned me and told me my own son had been killed. It was awful."

A half hour later, Cobb confirmed the worst.

Nothing could have prepared Furlong or members of his team for such news. His first thoughts were with the athlete and his family. He couldn't imagine the young man's parents receiving such a horrible message. He was also concerned for the other members of the Georgian team. How would they deal with such a blow? How would all the luge competitors handle it?

"I was really concerned about the psychological impact this was going to have on all these young men and the dreams they had come here to pursue," said Furlong. "The luge community isn't very big. They move around the world together competing in one spot after another. So I knew this was going to impact more than one family because the luge community is a family in and of itself."

Furlong spent almost as much time talking to IOC boss Jacques Rogge in the immediate hours after the accident than he had in the previous seven years combined. Rogge was devastated, Furlong said.

"We talked a lot," said Furlong. "This is a guy who has seen it all as a surgeon. He's operated on people. But this really shook him, really wounded him. It was profound the impact it had on him."

Then Furlong had to phone David Atkins, producer of the opening ceremonies, to get him to amend the show to honour Kumaritashvili. And then Furlong rewrote his own speech for the event.

At the same time, he says now, he was concerned about the mental health of members of his own team. How badly would this rattle them? What would it do to morale? Little did he know Kumaritashvili's death was only the beginning of his challenges.

Furlong concedes the Games have had a bumpy start. Beyond the tragedy in Whistler, these Olympics have been hampered by bad weather, transportation problems and protesters. There have more controversies to deal with in the first 72 hours of the Games than in the seven years it took to organize them.

"Nodar's death really set us back as an organization," Furlong said. "Then on top of that we've had these other issues, the protests. I was really worried about the effect they would have on the city."

But it hasn't been all bad news.

Despite a cauldron malfunction, the opening ceremonies were viewed by a record-setting Canadian television audience. In fact, Canadians are watching all of the Games at what appears to be never-before-seen levels. So the nation appears to be fully engaged.

Meantime, the city of Vancouver has responded, too. The downtown core is alive like never before. Free venues and Olympic houses have been almost overwhelmed by the number of visitors showing up. The weather has even started co-operating a little.

All of which has helped improve the mood and attitude of everyone involved. Furlong has noticed it as he's moved around to different venues talking to his team, trying to keep their spirits high, keeping them focused on the goal: Make Canadians proud.

Furlong was in B.C. Place Stadium for a function on Sunday night when Alexandre Bilodeau won Canada's first Olympic gold medal on home soil. He admits to being quite emotional when it happened.

"I think it was needed on so many levels," he said. "Canadians needed it. The team needed it. The guys up there on Cypress really needed it because they've been feeling like they have been piling sand bags up against the side of a raging river that won't quit.

"But the justice last night was in the young man who won it. What a fantastic person he is. What a lift he helped give us just when we needed it most."

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