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Olympic luge competition begins on day after death of Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010; D07

WHISTLER, B.C. -- When the sliders gathered Saturday morning at the Whistler Sliding Center -- ready to take to an Olympic luge run that, not 24 hours earlier, took the life of one of their competitors -- they encountered a course that was shorter, slower, and presumably safer than it had been a day earlier. They sat in a nearly silent starting area, mulling both competition and camaraderie, before launching themselves down the track again.

On other days, racing would have seemed routine, even at the Olympics. But over the course of an emotional day here, what emerged was the clear idea that athletes who participate in luge do so in part to go fast, risks be damned. Now, racing on a track that caused significant concern even prior to Friday's death of 21-year-old Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili, the risks clearly can be fatal, a notion that was inescapable even in the midst of the sport's highest level of competition.

"I feel like I'm losing my mind a little bit," said Ian Cockerline of Canada. "One second you have tears welling up in your eyes because you're thinking about Nodar, and then the next minute you're psyching yourself up and you're grabbing the handles and you're going off. Honestly, I don't know whether that's good or bad."

All but a few sliders decided to race, yet each dealt with the death of Kumaritashvili in whatever way he could. The day's events -- two training runs followed by the first two runs of competition in the evening -- carried on under a discernible pall, the memories of Friday's terrifying accident, shown repeatedly on television, still fresh.

"It happened in front of me yesterday," India's Kannan Palan said. "I've never seen anything like it before. I was telling myself not to believe it. . . . We can't compete with the same joy."

They will, however, compete. Officials from the International Luge Federation (FIL) said Saturday they had considered postponing competition or canceling it all together, but instead they announced they had erected a higher wall in the turn where Kumaritashvili lost control and sailed off the track, crashing into a metal pole. They altered the ice in that same area, another measure aimed at keeping sliders within the confines of the track. And they announced the men's event -- which includes two runs Saturday night and the final two runs Sunday -- would begin from the women's starting area, shortening the course by 176 meters, a move that dropped speeds significantly.

"The bottom line is that the decisions made are to deal with the emotional component," FIL secretary general Svein Romstad said, "to alleviate as best as possible the traumatic experience of this tragic event."

Competitors, though, hardly embraced the lower start, and some were bitter that FIL officials had not consulted more with athletes and coaches. The Whistler Sliding Center, which opened in late 2007, carries the highest vertical drop from start to finish in the world, 152 meters, a plunge that created blazing speeds. In training earlier in the week, lugers routinely topped 95 mph.

"It's an exhilarating experience to go from the top," Canada's Jeff Christie said. On Saturday, from the lower start, it was less so. Germany's Felix Loch posted the fastest time in the first two runs, but his top speed was 91.6 mph.

"It's too slow," Austria's Manuel Pfister said.

"I like the men's start better, to be honest with you," Cockerline said. "I think it's more fun. I would have been excited to showcase this facility and how fast we can go here. I am proud of it."

FIL officials, though, felt change was necessary, though they simultaneously said they want to hold speeds down in the future -- not building facilities that push athletes beyond 87 mph or so -- and stuck up for the Whistler facility as safe.

"It is one of the fastest tracks," FIL President Josef Fendt said, "but we never said that it is too fast."

It proved so for Kumaritashvili. The Coroners Service of British Columbia worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on their investigation Friday, then turned the track back over to FIL officials, who conducted their own inquiry. FIL placed the blame on the accident on Kumaritashvili himself, saying he did not properly navigate the 15th of 16 turns. That caused him to careen into the final turn at a poor angle -- "He was completely off line," Canada Coach Wolfgang Staudinger said -- and shot him toward the high edge of the track.

"The angle in which he did so resulted in him experiencing a G-force that literally collapsed his body, rendering it difficult to control the sled, which in this case he was not able to do," Romstad said.

"Once this happened, he was literally at the mercy of the path of the sled."

Kumaritashvili hit the wall in that final turn and was propelled out of the track. Data released by FIL showed that in 26 runs down this track, Kumaritashvili, ranked 44th in the world, had crashed in that area at least three times.

On Saturday, in the two training runs, there were no crashes at the slower speeds. But three sliders, including Kumaritashvili's countryman, Levan Gureshidze, decided not to take to the course, and Gureshidze dropped out entirely before competing Saturday night. Those who raced did so wearing a piece of black tape on the left side of their helmets, a small tribute.

"For me personally, I really felt like I was sliding with Nodar today," Canada's Samuel Edney said. "He was, I guess, in my thoughts and my heart. It's something that you never want to experience in the sport, especially in a small community like luge, and also in the Olympic community.

"That's just kind of the biggest shock here, and everyone's still kind of trying to swallow what happened."

They were dealing, too, with the fact that more racing could lead to more crashes, a notion they had to dismiss.

"Luge is a tough sport," American Tony Benshoof said. "It takes a long time to master. That's the bottom line. We could hash over for hours, but at the end of the day, we're going 95-98 mph, and we're six inches off the ice. We get down a mile-long track in 45 seconds. There's an inherent risk."

On Saturday, officials tried to take steps to minimize that risk. Sunday, if everything goes off as scheduled, three dozen racers will twice more zoom past the pole where Kumaritashvili died. Someone will be awarded gold, someone else silver, someone else bronze, and an entire sport will try to move on from its most difficult day.

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