Men’s Olympic lugers will start lower on track, in response to athlete’s fatal crash

By Tom Withers, AP
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Men’s Olympic lugers will start lower on track

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The start of men’s Olympic luge competition was moved farther down the track, international luge officials said Saturday, a decision made with the “emotional component” of athletes in mind following the death of a Georgian competitor.

The officials reiterated that the lightning-fast track was safe for competition.

“We never said it is too fast,” International Luge Federation president Josef Fendt said.

An extra session of men’s training, as well as all four runs of the men’s event — two on Saturday, two on Sunday — will begin from the women’s start ramp.

It means speeds, at least for the men, will be a bit lower at the Whistler Sliding Track, where 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed and died in a training run on Friday after his body flew over the track wall and smashed into a steel pole.

Other changes were made overnight, including raising the wall at Curve 16, the area where Kumaritashvili crashed; some modifications were also made to the surface of the ice itself. When training resumed from the lower start, American Tony Benshoof — the first man to slide in the session — navigated the track without incident.

“For me, personally, and for the International Luge Federation, yesterday was the worst day,” Fendt said. “The saddest day.”

However, Kumaritashvili’s teammate, Levan Gureshidze, did not take his sixth run down the course. There was no official word on why he did not slide or if he has withdrawn from the field. Also declining were Argentina’s Ruben Gonzalez, the first person to compete in four Winter Olympics in four different decades, and Chinese Taipei’s Chih-Hung Ma. It’s not known if they will race.

Kumaritashvili’s death was believed to be the first on a sanctioned luge track since December 1975, the federation said.

After taking a deep breath, Benshoof, a three-time Olympian exhaled, dropped his visor and headed down the world’s fastest track. Even to the naked eye, he wasn’t moving with nearly the speed he managed during practice this week. TV cameras were even behind while trying to adjust to the slower sleds.

Because of the alteration to the women’s start, Benshoof’s time of 49.260 seconds was more than two seconds slower than the time recorded by Germany’s Felix Loch on Friday. Benshoof, who has at least three herniated discs and was dealing with an injured foot Friday, needed help lifting his sled off the ice but was otherwise fine.

Benshoof did not want to talk about Friday’s tragedy after his run.

None of the early riders had any trouble on the speedy track, though some wrestled with the emotion of returning to competition.

“It’s really difficult to start,” said Slovenia’s Domen Pociecha. “Everybody’s thinking the same thing. You can see it in their faces.”

It remains unknown if the start positions will be changed for upcoming bobsled and skeleton competitions, a decision that will be made in consultation with the governing body for those sports and not the IFL.

“That will be really up to them,” VANOC vice president Tim Gayda said.

FIL secretary general Svein Romstad said the G-forces generated by Kumaritashvili exiting the 15th curve and entering the 16th and final curve “literally collapsed his body, rendering it difficult to control the sled, which in this case he was not able to do.

“Once this happened, he was literally at the mercy of the path of the sled,” Romstad said.

Including past training sessions starting last November, Kumaritashvili had 26 runs down the icy chute in all, and data distributed by the FIL indicated that he crashed at least three times around the area of the final curve.

From the men’s luge start, which won’t be used going forward during these Olympics, Kumaritashvili crashed four times in 16 tries.

AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed to this story.

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