Feared luge track becomes death trap

Officials meeting to decide future of competition

By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency




WHISTLER — One of the most feared luge runs in the world went from sporting venue to death trap in the blink of an eye.

A gruesome accident during Friday morning’s training session took the young life of Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, casting a pall over the start of the Olympics and plunging the host nation into controversy.

The future of the luge competition — scheduled to begin Saturday — also is in doubt. Friday night, the RCMP and the Coronors Service of British Columbia shut down the track indefinitely and announced a joint investigation into the tragedy.

After losing control of his sled, the 21-year-old was hurtled from the track and smashed his head on a metal pole located treacherously close to the Whistler Sliding Centre track.

Officials immediately closed the controversial run, which is known for its high speeds, often reaching 150 km/h.

Now there is outrage from many athletes and officials who blame Canadian organizers for not allowing other sliders extended pre-Olympic access to the course.

“I would be ready to deliberate that with you at the proper time,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said when asked to address those allegations. “I’m sorry. This is the time for sorrow. It is not the time to look for reasons.

“The IOC is in deep mourning.”

After earlier speculation that Georgia would withdraw from the competition, that nation’s minister of sport decided the Games will go for them.

“Our sportsmen and our athletes decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games and they will compete and dedicate their performance to their fallen comrade,” an emotional Nikolos Rurua said, fighting back tears.

The signs of grief were apparent in Whistler Village where flags were at half mast and in the Town Plaza square, a memorial with flowers, candles and a picture of Kumaritashvili were on display for mourners.

The crash was the young Georgian’s second of the week and one of more than a dozen wipeouts that have been reported during training.

Ranked 44th in the world, he was approaching a final 270-degree turn on the course at a recorded speed of 134 km/h when he lost control of his sled and was violently tossed.

The grim faces and sickened reaction of Kumaritashvili’s fellow competitors made it clear that the accident was gravely serious almost immediately. Medical personnel performed emergency CPR on the athlete at the site before he was rushed to a local hospital. Luge and Olympic officials confirmed his death shortly after noon, local time.

The controversial course — built at a cost of $105 million specifically for these Games — has a vertical drop of 152 metres, making it the steepest and fastest in the sport. It is so daunting and difficult, that athletes have nicknamed it “the elevator shaft.”

“It’s a challenge,” Canadian luger Sam Edney said earlier this week. “It is one of the fastest that we compete on. It’s definitely a speed track.”

It is known as the fastest course in the world, prompting coaches and athletes in the three sliding sports — luge, bobsled and skeleton — to consider placing speed limitations on tracks used for competition. With athletes reaching clocked speeds of more than 153 kilometres per hour in training, the danger factor was clearly ramped up prompting athletes to air their concerns.

Training here was marred by several accidents including one Thursday in which Romanian luger Violeta Stramaturaru was briefly knocked unconscious in a crash while training for the women’s singles event.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

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