Luger’s death defines sliding events on speedy Olympic track with uncertain future

By Tom Withers, AP
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Olympic sliding touched by tragedy

WHISTLER, British Columbia — When the final Olympic race was over, a stillness shrouded the Whistler Sliding Center.

The last curve, No. 16, was silent.

The ambulance that carried Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s body was parked just a few feet away from the memorial, still there and replete with wilting bouquets of flowers, flags from Canada and Georgia, four burned-out candles, three stuffed mascots and a commemorative silver Olympic medallion, all wrapped around the steel support pole that took his life.

That is sliding’s legacy at these Olympics.

Kumaritashvili’s death, an accident some insist could have been prevented, overshadowed the sliding events and brought unwanted scrutiny to luge, skeleton and bobsled, fringe sports that have long craved global attention, but not this scorching spotlight.

Organizers built the $104 million sliding complex and its track to be the world’s fastest, a technically challenging circuit that would test the world’s best sliders and produce sizzling speeds over ice. It was immediately deemed treacherous and terrifying.

“Right from the go, this track had a stigma about it, ‘this dangerous, dangerous track,’” said Canada’s Kaillie Humphries, who won gold in women’s bobsled with teammate Heather Moyse. “It’s a mental game. I think a lot of people are just mentally afraid.”

Crashing is commonplace in sliding sports. Death is not.

When Kumaritashvili was thrown from his sled in the final “Thunderbird” curve and flung into a steel beam on the track’s edge, everything about these games changed. There was concern it would happen again, and a comment by U.S. bobsledder Shauna Rohbock that the track was “stupid fast” put those unfamiliar with sliding’s fundamental dangers on edge.

There were crashes, though not an inordinate number, raising safety issues and opening debate over what to do next with Whistler’s track.

Some athletes have recommended radical changes, particularly in turns 11, 12 and 13, a section that proved impassable for several top two- and four-man bobsleds. Others want stricter qualifying guidelines to keep the Olympics only for the best of the best.

On Saturday, before USA-1 driver Steve Holcomb beat German icon Andre Lange and steered the Americans to their first gold medal in four-man since 1948, a few of Canada’s top sliding athletes defended their home track, which is scheduled to host a World Cup bobsled race in November and the luge world championships in 2013.

Their stance: Whistler is no different than anyplace else.

“If you go into 12 in Altenberg (Germany) late, you are done,” Canadian luger Jeff Christie said. “I mean done. You are going to be on your face. In Lake Placid, 13, 17 or 12, you have to drive perfect. In races, there’s crashes. It’s quick here, and the crashes look bigger.

“If you make a mistake, it’s not going to tickle you, it’s going to teach you.”

The lessons learned here will hopefully prevent a tragedy like the one that killed the 21-year Kumaritashvili, who had taken 26 practice runs — 16 from the top — of the Whistler track. In his wake, officials slowed down the racers by moving the starting line down the mountain for the luge events.

However, the decision was criticized by some of the women competitors, who felt the track was safe to begin with.

“I know it was a tragedy, but I wish they would have consulted the athletes,” U.S. luger Julia Clukey said after Germany’s Tatjana Huefner won gold, her country’s ninth in the event in 13 Olympics. “I understand because of the seriousness of what happened — but if it was for safety reasons, I think they should have asked the athletes.”

Following the four-man event, several drivers offered opinions on what could — or should — be done on North America’s fourth sliding track.

American pilot Mike Kohn believes any alterations should be minimal. He said the best remedy would be to give sliders more practice runs. Canadian officials were criticized for not allowing more international training in advance of the games, but this wasn’t the first host nation to restrict access for a home-ice advantage.

“We had the same problems in Lake Placid,” said Kohn, a bronze medalist in 2002 who finished 13th in four-man at Whistler. “I don’t think the answer is to change the track. I think the answer is to get people on these tracks because crashing is part of the sport.

“Maybe I’m too old school, but crashing is part of it. If we’re just going to ride down a sliding board, there’s no interest. It would be a boring thing. The answer to make it better is to give people trips.”

Nobody made theirs better than Holcomb, the man who after wrecking here in a World Cup event last season nicknamed the 13th curve “50-50″ to reflect the odds of getting through it safely. Holcomb intended it to be a joke, but it proved to be prophetic.

Not long after ending the U.S. team’s 62-year gold medal drought, Holcomb was asked to assess the Whistler lion he had tamed.

“It’s a tricky track,” he said. “It’s the fastest in the world. There’s nowhere else you can actually train for 95 mph, especially here, where the turns are closer together. They’re really tight curves. Makes it interesting. The more runs you have here, the more you’re going to get used to it and the better you’ll be.

“It takes a lot of skill to get through there cleanly and fast.”

The sliding venue provided plenty of stirring moments. Holcomb and his teammates celebrated their joy ride by wrapping themselves in the American flag at the finish line. Canada’s Jon Montgomery screamed “Yes!” after his win in skeleton and then guzzled from a pitcher of beer. And Humphries and Moyse danced on the podium after Canada won gold and silver in bobsled.

But the image never to be forgotten was taped to a steel pole.

On it was a photograph of Kumaritashvili sliding in practice through the Olympic rings, through the same turn where he would lose his life. Someone had written a message: “Godspeed, Nodar.”

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