WHISTLER // A black cloud descended over the Vancouver Olympics on Friday after the 21-year-old Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a horrific training crash at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Kumaritashvili was making his final scheduled practice slide before Saturday's competition when he lost control at 90mph (145kph) and was launched over the rim of the track before slamming into an unpadded pillar.
His sled and smashed visor continued down the ice towards the finish line which was just metres away on a course which has seen several crashes this week and been labelled as too fast and dangerous by a number of competitors. Medics performed emergency resuscitation at the scene before he was flown down the mountain by helicopter where he died in hospital. The track was closed pending an investigation but later reopened and the competition is set to go ahead on schedule.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Luge Federation (FIL) issued a joint statement offering their condolences. "Our first thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues of the athlete. The whole Olympic Family is struck by this tragedy which clearly casts a shadow over these Games," the IOC president Jacques Rogge said. "This is a terrible accident," added the FIL president Josef Fendt. "This is the gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the luge family are naturally with those touched by the event."
The Vancouver organising committee (VANOC) head John Furlong said he was "heartbroken" by the death of Kumaritashvili. Training was cancelled while the venue was investigated by the Coroners Service of British Columbia and the FIL. They said the accident had not been caused by deficiencies in the track but that alterations had been made as a "preventative measure". "It appears the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16. This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident," a statement said.
"Based on these findings the race director, in consultation with the FIL, made the decision to reopen the track following a raising of the walls at the exit of curve 16 and a change in the ice profile. "This was done as a preventative measure, in order to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again." Fendt was due to hold a news conference with Tim Gayda, the VANOC vice president of sport, today when two extra men's training runs will be held before the competition starts at 1700 local time.
The Olympic and Canadian flags were lowered to half mast during a minute's silence held at the opening ceremony. The Georgian National Olympic Committee (NOC) and its athletes wore black stripes as they marched in. They also placed a black patch on the Georgian flag that was raised immediately following the parade of athletes. Kumaritashvili, the son of Selix, the head of the Georgian Luge Federation, was competing at his first Olympics after racing in five World Cup events this year with little success.
His death was the first luge fatality in the Olympic Games since the Briton Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski died during a training run in Innsbruck, Austria in 1964, the debut year for the sport in which athletes hurtle down the track feet first. An FIL spokesman said that at a recent international training week at Whistler Sliding Centre, acknowledged as the fastest in the world, there had been 2,500 runs with only a three per cent crash rate.
However, athletes have been remarking all week on the speed and technical difficulty of the 1,400 metre track which features corners nicknamed 50-50 and Shiver. FIL spokesman Wolfgang Harder said on Thursday that future tracks would need to be slowed down to protect the safety of athletes. "We are going to have to put speed limits in the next track which will be built for the Olympics," he said after Manuel Pfister set the fastest recorded luge speed of 154kph.
Friday's fatal accident occurred on the 16th corner, the final curve of a high-speed labyrinth that has proved treacherous even for the world's top lugers. Earlier on Friday, the double Olympic champion and gold medal favourite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy was caught out at the 11th corner and was flipped off his sled. A Romanian woman competitor was briefly knocked unconscious on Thursday. * Reuters