Track speed is the real issue in luger's death

By Tracee Hamilton
Sunday, February 14, 2010; D01


So let me see if I've got this straight: According to spokesmen for the International Luge Federation, the Whistler sliding track, where Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili lost his life on Friday, is not too fast. We definitely don't want future tracks to be this fast -- speeds can reach 95 miles per hour. But this track -- at which speeds can reach 95 miles per hour -- is not too fast.

The track is also safe. The accident was caused by driver error. So we're going to move the start line lower on the track, add higher walls and make ice adjustments, but not because the track is unsafe. No, it's just a placebo to make the obviously shaken athletes feel better.

Oh, and Canadian athletes didn't Bogart track time at Whistler.

My head hurts.

Here are some facts we know, facts that all the double talk Saturday can't change. Fact: Luge is a dangerous sport, and accidents happen, although fatalities are rare. Before Friday, the most recent was in December 1975. Fact: Kumaritashvili was not a top luger, but he had taken 26 runs on the Whistler course in the two years since it opened -- the most recent, prior to Olympic training, in November. Fact: Kumaritashvili, 21, is dead.

When he flew off the track, Kumaritashvili experienced "a G-force that literally collapsed his body, rendering it difficult to control the sled," said a shaken federation secretary general Svein Romstad of the United States at a news conference yesterday in Whistler. "Once this happened, he was literally at the mercy of the path of his sled."

If an athlete experiences G-forces that collapse his body, I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that that athlete was traveling too fast.

The desire to go faster, of course, is what put the "Citius" in "Citius Altius Fortius." But in the case of luge -- and skeleton and bobsled as well -- increased speeds are derived more from the equipment and the track than from any physical advances. If technology is allowed to progress faster than man's ability to physically control it, at some point it may outstrip the endurance of flesh and bone.

"We may just have found the limit," said U.S. bobsled driver Mike Kohn of Chantilly.

Kohn said bobsleds were reaching speeds of 95 mph two years ago at Whistler, and he expects speeds to exceed 96 mph when competition begins this week. Those numbers are similar to speeds posted by lugers. With such speeds being batted about, luge officials Saturday decided to make some adjustments to the track -- but not for safety concerns.

"They wanted to do the maximum for the athletes because clearly it's a very, very emotional moment for them, and we need to show that we're doing absolutely everything," said Mark Adams, IOC director of communications. "There's no problem with safety at all, but it was felt that we needed to make some changes to show we were on the case, as it were, to reassure [the athletes]. "

Canada's Jeff Christie seemed more angered than reassured by the change in starts.

"I can't really think about it," he told The Post's Barry Svrluga on Saturday before the first day of competition in Whistler. "If I get mad and pissed off, it's not going to change it. Either way at 5 o'clock today, I got to get in the start and pull off. Either way I got to race."

At least Christie is familiar with the track, no matter where the starting line is placed. There has been much griping among non-Canadians about a lack of access to practice at Whistler. Kohn has been competing in bobsled for 20 years. He won a bronze medal in Salt Lake City eight years ago, and his four-man team is ranked 15th in the world. But he has never been on the Whistler course.

"I came up here when the track opened [in 2007] and hung around with my helmet in my hand, hoping a driver wanted to take a run off," said Kohn, a sergeant in the Virginia Army National Guard. "No one did."

Luge isn't like football or basketball -- every venue is completely different. In luge, the movement of a toe can alter the trajectory of your sled. This is why it should be incumbent on track landlords to provide as many runs as possible to whoever wants them.

"Lake Placid is a difficult and technical course, one of the top two or three in terms of difficulty," Kohn said. "They allow anyone to train, any time. They will help with sleds, put athletes up at local homes. . . . "

Even with an open door policy, the host is still going to have more opportunities than anyone else. But limiting access, no matter who's doing it -- Kohn claims the United States did much the same thing at Park City in 2002 -- is poor sportsmanship of the "I'm going to take my ball and go home" variety.

Better access will have to be mandated by the FIL -- Canadian officials pulled muscles yesterday explaining over and over that they met the "minimum requirements." (Is that the fourth part of the Olympic motto? Minimus?) Track speed, too, will have to be controlled, for the sake of safety and common sense.

Fast is important, but if everyone is doing 85 miles an hour instead of 95, does that really diminish the sport? Speed thrills, but it also kills.

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