Saba Kumaritashvili's appearance at the 2022 Winter Olympics was brief. The Georgian luger failed to advance after three runs in men’s singles, placing 31st out of 34 athletes.
However, for the 21-year-old, just competing was an achievement.
Kumaritashvili comes from what is referred to as the "first family of luge" in Georgia. His great-grandfather, Aleko, helped build the country’s first luge training track in the early 1970s. His grandfather competed for the Soviet Union in the 70s. Kumaritashvili's father runs the country's national luge federation, a role that relatives have rotated through for decades. And his uncle won several USSR youth championships.
The Georgian was practically born to luge.
But the sport also gave the family unimaginable heartbreak. Kumaritashvili’s cousin, Nodar, died in a freak training accident hours before the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Nodar crashed his sled and flew over the sidewall, colliding with a steel support pole.
Twelve years later — nearly to the day — Saba, also 21, successfully completed both of his first two heats. The following evening, he sped through a third and final run.
“I wasn’t afraid,” Kumaritashvili said. “I wanted to be in the Olympics to race.”
Instead of straying from luge after his cousin’s death, Kumaritashvili embraced it. He doesn’t remember much of his cousin, who was 10 years older than him — “only moments,” Kumaritashvili said.
But Saba may not have had the urge to compete if not for Nodar. The younger Kumaritashvili debuted on the world stage last year, placing 21st in Latvia's 2021 Nations Cup. He entered the season ranked 47th in the world in men’s singles.
“I think about [Nodar] all the time," Saba said. "Everyone in my family is in luge. After Nodar, I didn’t want luge to die in Georgia. I wanted to keep it going.”
His parents agreed. Kumaritashvili said they didn’t object to his luge aspirations - in fact, they “wanted it more than me.”
Thinking about Nodar is painful for Saba. But continuing the family tradition and following in his cousin’s footsteps “gives me strength as well,” Kumaritashvili said.
"It takes a lot of courage for Saba to be here," said German luger Felix Loch, who won singles gold at Vancouver 2010 and finished fourth at the Winter 2022 Games. "He likes the sport, like his cousin. It’s great to see him sliding for the whole luge family.”
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Kumaritashvili’s name may just be a footnote in luge's Olympics history books, at least for these Games. But he’s already accomplished more than any medal could signify.
"I’ve done what I needed,” Kumaritashvili said. “I was emotional, I was so nervous, but I feel very proud of myself.”
On Monday, Kumaritashvili posted a picture on Instagram of him as a young child with Nodar’s arm draped on his shoulder. There is no caption, except for three dots. There was no need for words.