Olympic track reopens with men starting lower on course, in response to athlete’s fatal crash

By Tom Withers, AP
Saturday, February 13, 2010

Olympic sliding resumes on fast track

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Olympic luge events will start farther down the track than originally planned, officials said Saturday, a decision they made with the “emotional component” of athletes in mind following the death of a Georgian competitor.

They reiterated that the lightning-fast track was safe for competition, and Olympic officials said they were “completely satisfied” with the adjustments.

“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. Meanwhile, the women’s and doubles entrants in the Olympic field will now start even lower, at the junior start position, between the fifth and sixth curves.

It means speeds in all luge events will be a bit slower 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 at nearly 90 mph.

The decision to change the start’s location seemed to have the desired effect during men’s training on Saturday, the first session on the track after Kumaritashvili’s terrifying crash. None of the 36 sliders, all of whom wore black tape on the left sides of their helmets in tribute to Kumaritashvili, broke 90 mph after speeds routinely surpassed 95 mph earlier in the week.

Russia’s Albert Demtschenko was clocked at 88.1 mph after topping at 94.6 mph in his fifth practice run.

Germany’s Felix Loch was fastest in training at 89.2 mph — well off his track record of 95.68 set during a World Cup event last year.

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. During the training session Saturday morning, workers were seen strapping padding to the steel poles along the finish curve.

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.”

Kumaritashvili’s teammate, Levan Gureshidze, did not train on Saturday, skipping both runs. He was at the track, wearing a black armband, and there was no official word on why he did not slide or if he planned to race when the men’s competition opened later Saturday.

Argentina’s Ruben Gonzalez, the first person to compete in four Winter Olympics in four different decades, also skipped the training run. It was unclear if Gonzalez, from Katy, Texas, would compete later on.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge planned to attend Saturday’s competition, which was certain to have a somber atmosphere. Someone placed a small bouquet of yellow flowers near the bottom of the pole that Kumaritashvili struck. A man was seen kneeling near the pole, sobbing as the morning training session ended.

“We’re confident it will be a successful competition,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “We’re totally convinced the sliding center is safe.”

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 FIL.

“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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