Luge death of Nodar Kumaritashvili shows danger of Whistler track

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died Friday after a crash during a training run. The luge death comes after many athletes expressed fears about the Whistler track, the world's fastest and most difficult.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili takes his first training run Friday in on the Olympic luge track in Whistler, British Columbia. On his second run, Kumaritashvili was killed in a crash.

The luge death of Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili in a crash during training Friday opens the Vancouver Organizing Committee to criticism that it has built a sliding track that is recklessly unsafe.

News reports indicate that Kumaritashvili crashed into both walls near the bottom of the track while traveling at 90 miles per hour before being thrown from the track entirely and hitting a metal pole. It was his second crash of the week, the Toronto Sun reports.

Even before Friday’s events, the track had gained a reputation as perhaps the most dangerous in the world. “I pray a little in turns 11 and 12 and then breathe again after 13,” said American bobsledder Michelle Rzepka in press conference Thursday, referring to the lower section of the track where the Kumaritashvili crash happened.

Turn 13 is so difficult that it has become known as “the 50-50” – with athletes giving themselves only a 50 percent chance of making it through the curve without crashing.

The Whistler track is the fastest in the world, with lugers hitting speeds of more than 93 miles per hour – six miles per hour faster than the previous world record. What’s more, it is also a technical track, meaning that sliders and bobsledders have to make key driving decisions to avoid crucial mistakes or even crashes.

“Once you hit top speed it gets really technical,” said US pilot Bree Schaaf at the same press conference. “That’s where it gets scary.”

Rzepka says only one other track in the world can compare to Whistler for sheer difficulty: the Altenberg track in Germany. It has gained its reputation because “even the best drivers crash there,” she said.

The same is becoming true at Whistler. Before Kumaritashvili’s accident Friday, the world’s No. 1-ranked luger, Armin Zoeggeler, also crashed.

But Altenberg is a World Cup track, meaning only the most experienced pilots and sliders attempt it. By contrast, the Olympic competition is open to far more athletes – many of whom are relative novices here only for the Olympic experience.

The Olympic news service lists no World Cup results for the 22-year-old Kumaritashvili.

Kumaritashvili’s death is the first death of an athlete during competition in the history of the Winter Olympics, according to historian David Wallechinsky. Two athletes have died during the Summer Games.

At a press conference following the crash, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge refused to talk about the specifics of the accident – or how it might affect the entire sliding-sports competition at the Vancouver Games. He said he would wait for the results of an investigation.

But the men’s luge competition is scheduled to begin Saturday, giving the investigation a tremendous sense of urgency.


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