Kumaritashvili's shadow looms large

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WHISTLER, B.C. — There was no avoiding the collateral damage from the tragedy of a man who was barely known three days earlier, but one who will forever be attached to Olympic luge.

There was no escaping the memory or the legacy of dead Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili. Not in the surroundings of the Whistler Sliding Centre, nor in the result as medals were awarded in front of a lively, emotional crowd at this controversial event.

History will show that German Felix Loch became the youngest ever to win Olympic gold in his event. His name won’t be the one most remembered from this competition, however.

As you walked to the finish line for Sunday evening’s final of four runs, the signs of Kumaritashvili’s heart-wrenching story were impossible to miss.

Directly below the fresh plywood on a wall just built and orange padding only recently attached to metal beams — two new safety features that may have saved his life had they been constructed 72 hours earlier — was an impromptu memorial.

Two candles flickered beside several bunches of flowers and a pair of stuffed animals at the very spot Kumaritashvili perished on Thursday, an event so wrenching it took the breathe out of these Games before they even began.

“The energy that’s been in this place really helped put a hold on what everyone was feeling in the luge community,” said Canadian Sam Edney, who responded with the rides of his life here to grab seventh, the best a Canadian man has finished in Olympic luge history.

“The next couple of days it will really settle in.”

For the athletes, it most certainly will.

In an event that was doomed to be tainted from its awful beginning, even the final results are not without some controversy.

How would you feel if you were Armin Zoeggeler, a co-favourite with Loch going in but a man with little chance after officials made the course two football fields shorter to supposedly make it slower?

Haven’t heard of him? Prior to the track alteration, the Italian had a good shot of winning a third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Instead, he had to settle for bronze behind Loch and another German, David Moeller, as Zoeggeler became just the third Olympian to win a medal in the same event in five consecutive Games.

With the start line moved to a flatter point on the course that snakes down Blackcomb Mountain, the 36-year-old legend of his sport saw his biggest advantage snatched away. Loch is a brilliant starter — as are all of the Germans — especially in a flat start like the one in this abbreviated course.

In each of the four runs, Loch seized on the advantage and cemented his bid for gold in the opening few seconds. The rest of the field didn’t have a chance.

Not to slight the German policeman — he did, after all, become the world’s fastest man in competition a year ago when he blitzed to a clocking of 153.98 km/h here.

Maybe as time heals and his own legacy is developed, maybe Loch’s brilliance will help balance the memory of Kumaritashvili’s perilous end. And perhaps that’s as it should be.

Earlier on Sunday, the Wall Street Journal reported of a conversation held with Kumaritashvili’s father in the small Georgian village that was their home.

“He called me before the Olympics, three days ago, and said ‘Dad, I’m scared of the turns,’” David Kumaritashvili said. “He said if he stayed the course, he would finish it.

“He was brave.”

He will not be forgotten, either. Nor will this competition, for too many of the wrong reasons.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca


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