Crash claims luger

Georgian sledder killed while training

Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, lost control at the end of his second training run and was killed after being ejected from the track. Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, lost control at the end of his second training run and was killed after being ejected from the track. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)
By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Hours before yesterday’s opening ceremonies, the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili dampened the Olympic spirit. News of the tragedy sent shock waves threw this city ready to celebrate and raised questions about the safety of the luge track in Whistler.

Before the ceremonies began, two screens inside BC Place showed the message: “Tonight’s ceremony is dedicated to the memory of Georgian Olympic athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili.’’ When the small, somber Georgian delegation was announced during the parade of nations, the crowd rose to its feet in a show of respect and sympathy. The Georgian athletes wore black armbands and there was a black ribbon attached to the national flag. Later, before the athletes’ oath, there was a long moment of silence in memory of Kumaritashvili, during which the Olympic and Canadian flags were lowered to half staff.

Speeding down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre at nearly 90 miles per hour, Kumaritashvili, 21, lost control of his sled, flew over the track wall, and slammed into an unpadded steel pole near the finish line. Images of the crash show Kumaritashvili hitting his back first, then falling to the ground, where he lay motionless as medical personnel rushed to his aid and performed chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Paramedics and doctors could not revive the luger, who was airlifted to a Whistler trauma center and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

“We are heartbroken beyond words,’’ said John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

Added emotional International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge: “This is a very difficult day. The IOC is in deep mourning. Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion.’’

Rogge spoke with the president of Georgia and the head of the Georgian Olympic delegation, and was in contact with Kumaritashvili’s family. Despite the tragedy, the Georgian Olympic team, including Kumaritashvili’s cousin, who is the luge coach, decided it would remain in Vancouver and compete.

“As to the questions of the Georgian team’s participation in the Olympics, during the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008, Georgia was invaded by Russia, and our team, despite that fact, persevered and stayed and competed and won some medals,’’ said Nikolas Rurua, Georgian Minister of Sport and Culture. “So, our sportsmen and our athletes decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games and will dedicate their performances to their fallen comrade.’’

Condolences poured in from many nations. USA Luge president Dwight Bell and CEO Ron Rossi released a statement that sent “deepest sympathies’’ to Kumaritashvili’s family, teammates, coaches, and the entire Georgian delegation. USA Luge said Kumaritashvili “will remain in our prayers.’’

“The whole of our Olympic Committee is in shock about what happened,’’ said Austrian Olympic Committee spokesman Raimund Fabi. “We are a luge nation. We feel with the family of the athlete.’’

Added German spokesman Christian Klaue: “Our Chef de Mission [Bernhard Schwank] wrote to the Chef de Mission of the Georgian team and expressed his deepest regret to what has happened. We also send our condolences to the family of the athlete and his teammates and the entire Georgian team.’’

The Latvian delegation expressed what many lugers were undoubtedly thinking in the wake of the crash.

“It is a nervous situation,’’ said Latvian Luge Federation president Atis Strenga. “It’s a big tragedy for all luge. I hope, we all hope, it’s the first accident and last accident in this race.’’

An investigation of the crash began quickly, but Rogge declined to talk about it. It’s unclear if the investigation would affect the men’s luge competition, which is scheduled to begin today. There have been several training run crashes at the Whistler Sliding Centre track, including one that sent US luger Megan Sweeney airborne while exiting the final turn and one that knocked Romanian luger Violeta Stramaturaru unconscious.

The Whistler run is the fastest luge course in the world, with top racers reaching nearly 100 miles per hour. Bobsled, luge, and skeleton competitors all may break several speed records during these Olympics. It is also one of the world’s most technically difficult runs.

The luge run is called the “elevator shaft’’ because, as executive vice president of venue construction Dan Doyle said, “it goes down so damned fast.’’

Following her run at Whistler in the 2009 World Cup finale, US luger Erin Hamlin said, “It’s a lot of fun. It’s a challenge, but at the same time it’s very doable. Definitely, an adrenaline rush.’’

Concerns about the safety of the Whistler track were raised several months ago. Many countries, including the US, were upset about limited access to the venue and worried it could create problems with safety during the Games. At this point, it is uncertain what officials can do to prevent another crash similar to Kumaritashvili’s and ease the nervousness of delegations and competitors.

The Georgian delegation made clear it did not view the crash as a result of an error by Kumaritashvili.

“I’d like to especially stress one point,’’ said Rurua. “As questions were raised to his experience, I’d like to inform you that about his experience, he was well qualified and a hard worker in this particular field. And he, for example yesterday, took the 11th spot among other competitors. So, insinuations, speculation about his inexperience seems a little bit unfair and misleading.’’

Three seconds before the crash on Curve 13, Kumaritashvili hit a speed of 89.4 m.p.h. It was the top speed of his six training runs. His line on the track was high before the accident.

Kumaritashvili is the fourth competitor to die at the Winter Olympics and first since 1992. US flag bearer and five-time luge Olympian Mark Grimmette believes the Whistler track is pushing the boundaries of safety.

“We’re probably getting close,’’ said Grimmette. “The track is fast and you definitely have to be on your game . . . So, it’s definitely something they are going to have to take into account on future tracks.’’

Added American luger Christian Niccum, who crashed during a World Cup event at Whistler last year: “When I hit that ice going 90 m.p.h., it turns into fire. I remember coming around to the finish and I just wanted to rip off my suit, [thinking] ‘I’m on fire. I’m on fire.’ ’’

Kumaritashvili’s crash was a solemn reminder of how dangerous Winter Olympic sports can be when athletes speed down ice and snow or are flying high above them.