Luger dies hours before Olympic games begin

Shortly before last Friday’s opening ceremony, the Olympic city of Vancouver was hit hard with the news that an athlete had died while practicing in one of the venues. Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a luging accident.

A statement on the Vancouver 2010 website was posted on the same day as the accident confirmed reports of Kumaritashvili’s death. “It is with great regret that we confirm the death of the Georgian luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, during the final training session at the Whistler Sliding Centre this morning,” the statement read. Chief of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), John Furlong said in a press conference “[Kumaritashvili] came to Canada with hopes and dreams that this would be a magnificent occasion in his life. We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here.”

In luge, the athlete races down a slick, icy track on a sled feet-first. The objective is to complete the course, which is full of turns, in the fastest time. In the sport, athletes routinely approach speeds of 90 mph. Unlike most, the Whistler track does not flatten following turn 11, which in part accounts for the speeds recorded there.

David Epstein of ESPN reported that the Vancouver track is the fastest in the world by a large margin. Almost one year prior, a men’s luger set a new record for the fastest speed at the center. The athlete was tracked at speeds topping over 95 mph on the Whistler course. Before that, the fastest time was held by Tony Benshoof, a U.S. luger. Benshoof’s record was 86.8 mph, which was set in 2001. Kumaritashvili was traveling at 88 mph at the time of his crash.

Two days before the crash, Kumaritashvili called home to his father, “Dad, I really fear that curve,” he told the elder Kumaritashvili. David Kumaritashvili patiently talked his son through his trepidation, telling the Olympic athlete to take a slower start. His advice was not well received, “Dad, what kind of thing are you teaching me?” the luger reportedly said, “I have come to the Olympics to try to win.” The heartbroken father said his son had vowed to either win or die.

Kumaritashvili had completed the majority of the 4,500 foot long track, before being thrown clear during the final turn. He was catapulted into a steel beam, and lay immobile. The on-site medical team attempted to revive him but was unsuccessful. Kumaritashvili was transported to a nearby hospital and was later declared dead. The 21-year-old luger was on his final official practice run when the accident occurred.

Kumaritashvili’s crash was not the first to occur on the Whister track. In fact, several other lugers had crashed in the same area as Kumaritashvili. Italian luger Armin Zoeggler, the overall favorite to win the gold, also crashed, as well as Violeta Stramaturaru of Romania. She was knocked unconscious and hospitalized when she wiped out on the course.

Benshoof, who came in fourth in the event during the 2006 games in Torino, told the Associated Press that “The speeds [on the course] are very high. [Whistler] is very challenging. From the top down, you have your hands full. There are a lot of tricky corners.” He went on to note that “because of the physics of the curves, there’s a really small margin for error.”

It was such a miscalculation that led to Kumaritashvili’s untimely death, according to Oylmpic officials. Kumaritashvili’s accident was also blamed on the athlete’s inexperience.

Kumaritashvili was the son of the head of the Georgian Luge Federation, and was ranked 44 in the sport worldwide. The 2010 games were to be his first Olympics, although he had competed previously in five World Cups.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said, “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 luger’s death has been a source of criticism from the international media. Early reports from the Olympic city were received negatively worldwide. Officials said the cause for the accident and Kumaritashvili’s subsequent death were due to human error, essentially blaming the victim while ignoring reports that the Whistler track is dangerous and unsafe for athletes. Vancouver’s perceived slight of the Georgian athlete left many upset with the 2010 hosts.

After briefly suspending training, the track was reopened on Saturday and featured modifications. The men’s luge no longer has the same starting point, but will begin from the women’s start and the wall over which Kumaritashvili was thrown during his crash was raised. Officials also made a “change in the ice profile to avoid… such an extremely exceptional accident… occur[ing] again.” While not confirming that the track was dangerously unsafe, International Luge Federation President Josef Fendt said that changes that were made were mostly done in an effort to protect the “emotional components” of the athletes.

Later the same day, the seven remaining Georgian athletes marched into the Olympic stadium wearing black armbands as a tribute to Kumaritashvili and received a standing ovation from the 60,000 spectators in attendance. The entire opening ceremony was dedicated to the 21-year-old luger. During his opening remarks, Rogge again offered the Kumaritashvili family his sympathies.

On Sunday, the first luge medal event occurred as planned. Felix Loch and David Moeller of Germany won gold and silver, respectively and Zoegller took bronze.