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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 12, 2010

Shock, grief for an already troubled Winter Games


ERIN McCLAM
Associated Press Writer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia A luger hurtling at nearly 90 mph down a track that athletes had warned was dangerously fast was killed when he lost control of his sled on a training run Friday, casting a shadow of grief over what was already a troubled Olympics even before the games could begin.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old slider from the republic of Georgia, flew over the track wall and slammed into an unpadded steel pole near the finish line.

"Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion," said a clearly shaken IOC president Jacques Rogge. "He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident.

"I have no words to say what we feel."

News of the crash filtered down from the mountains as the Olympic flame was still making its way past cheering crowds through the downtown streets of Vancouver. Suddenly faced with balancing the shock with the joyful spirit of the games, organizers dedicated the opening ceremony to Kumaritashvili. The remaining seven Georgian athletes marched somberly with black armbands, behind a flag that bore a black ribbon, as spectators and Olympic officials stood and saluted them with applause.

It was the first time since 1992 in Albertville, France, that a Winter Olympian had died in training, and the fourth time ever. Death also haunted the last games hosted by Canada in 1988, when an Austrian team doctor fell under a snow machine in Calgary.

Rushing down the track, Kumaritashvili got into trouble when he took the next-to-last curve at a higher path than most lugers would prefer and careened up the banked, icy wall. He slid diagonally down the wall with his feet pointed the wrong way. As he hit the corner entering the final straightaway with his body, he was knocked off his sled and shot across the track, arms and legs flailing.

Less than a second later, Kumaritashvili's upper body struck a steel post in place to hold up a metal roof along the end of the track. He came to rest on a metal walkway, his left leg in the air and left foot propped atop the track wall.

Rescue workers got to him within seconds and began lifesaving efforts, but Kumaritashvili died shortly afterward at a nearby hospital.

In an inherently dangerous sport one that sends supine athletes on sleds down a twisting, ice-packed track Whistler's was known as probably the fastest in the world, and crashes had already marred the days leading up to competition.

"It is a nervous situation," Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said after the crash. "I hope, we all hope, it's the first accident and the last accident in this race."

It was actually the second crash for Kumaritashvili, who ranked 44th in the world standings this year and also failed to finish his second of six practice runs. His first crash was Wednesday night.

Earlier Friday, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler came off his sled and had to hold it with his left arm just to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.

Athletes had raised concerns about the safety of the track. Australian Hannah Campbell-Pegg went so far as to wonder aloud, a day before the fatal crash, whether lugers were being made into "crash-test dummies" thrown down the course.

Christian Niccum, one half of an American doubles luge team, crashed during a World Cup event in Whistler last year. He said on Thursday that the speed of the track was becoming excessive.

"It was just a simple rollover and we weren't bruised or anything, but when I hit that ice going 90 mph it turns into fire," he said. "I remember coming around to the finish and I just wanted to rip off my suit, 'I'm on fire. I'm on fire.'"

The rest of the Georgian delegation planned to compete despite the tragedy and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate. The athletes "decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games," said Nikolos Rurua, Georgia's minister of culture and sport.

Rurua remembered Kumaritashvili as promising and a hard worker. The young athlete was from the mountainous region of Georgia that has been its center for winter sports since the Soviet era, he said.

As the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing got under way, athletes from Georgia anxiously followed developments from back home after a bombardment by tanks and planes from neighboring Russia.

"This is a nation that has gone through an awful lot in the last three, four years," Vice President Joe Biden said while addressing U.S.athletes shortly before the opening ceremony. "It's a small nation of 5 million people, and the pride they had in representing their country here at the Olympics, and now to suffer this loss is just tragic."

Men's luge training was canceled for the day, and Vancouver organizers pledged an investigation, but it was not clear how the track might be made reliably safe in time for competition.

"This is a time for sorrow," Rogge said. "It is not a time to look for reasons that it happened."

The crash added a pall to a Winter Games already struggling to overcome problems.

Training runs for the men's and women's downhill had been canceled Friday because of rain overnight, and the first women's Alpine event, the super-combined, was postponed from Sunday. That might have been good news for American Lindsey Vonn, the headliner of the Vancouver Games, who now will have at least one more day to recover from a badly bruised right shin.

At Cypress Mountain, site of the freestyle skiing and snowboard competitions, more than 100,000 cubic feet of snow had to be trucked in for the games because there hadn't been a significant storm since the middle of January.

And organizers had to change the course of the torch itself Friday because of protesters waiting as the flame entered a poor, drug-addled Vancouver neighborhood. Mounted police prevented about 150 demonstrators from confronting the relay.

The problems weighed heavily on the games hours before the first indoor Olympic opening ceremony was to get under way at Vancouver's BC Place, with the identity of the final torchbearer still a secret. The crash at Whistler made that guessing game suddenly seem trivial.