Well, it it makes any difference, I graduated from high school over 8 years before Georgia became independent of the USSR, so in retrospect, I don't think it's surprising that I wasn't taught about the country in school.
Anyways, I learned that it was a country upon hearing the aforementioned news of the athlete who died in the Olympics that year, and honestly, I was only able to tell it was a country from the context. Only the logical incongruity of mentioning a specific US state for an athlete was sufficient to make me recognize they must have been referring to a country that happened to have the same name as a US state that I *had* heard of.. My point being that I hadn't heard of it before then, I can empathize completely with someone else who might not have heard of it until some news article shows up which mentions it, and depending on the context in which the name is used, it may not be obvious what is being talked about. It is, of course, fairly clear here... and even if a person had not heard of the country before seeing this article, explicitly adding a clarification between it and the US state of the same name in the article is unnecessarily speaking down to the readers of the article, and does not belong there. At the most, it should be only a footnote.