WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Fast and frightening, yes. Responsible for the death of a luger, no.
Olympic officials decided late Friday night against any major changes in the track or any delays in competition and even doubled up on the schedule in the wake of the horrifying accident that claimed the life of a 21-year-old luger from the republic of Georgia.
|Nodar Kumaritashvili struck the inside wall of the track on the final turn, causing him to go airborne. (Getty Images)|
Within sight of the finish line, Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed coming out of the 16th turn and slammed into an unpadded steel pole while traveling nearly 90 mph. Despite frantic attempts by paramedics to save his life, he died at a trauma center.
The International Luge Federation and Vancouver Olympic officials said their investigation showed that the crash was the result of human error and that "there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."
In a joint statement they said Kumaritashvili was late coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate. "This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled, resulting in the tragic accident."
Men lugers, who were scheduled to finish training Friday morning, will get two extra practice runs Saturday. Women will train four hours later than scheduled. Men's competition will be held later in the day as planned.
Kumaritashvili's death cast a pall over the Winter Games before they even started.
"I have no words to say what we feel," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, visibly shaken by the day's events.
Concerns about the course had been raised for months. There were worries that the $100 million-plus venue was too technically difficult, and a lack of significant practice time by everyone but the host nation's sliders would result in a rash of accidents.
"It is a nervous situation," Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said. "It's a big tragedy for all [of] luge. I hope, we all hope, it's the first accident and the last accident in this race."
Problems at the track date back to World Cup events and international training weeks held last year, when several of the world's top bobsled drivers were upended trying to make their way down the track with its tricky labyrinth of curves and unprecedented speed.
American pilot Steven Holcomb christened one of the course's toughest sections -- the 13th curve -- as "50-50" to reflect the odds of steering a sled through it cleanly.
Kumaritashvili, who had crashed during training on Wednesday, was nearing the bottom of his sixth practice run in a turn nicknamed "Thunderbird." His last recorded speed was 89.4 mph, measured near the last curve. He was on a higher path -- line, they call it in luge -- down the final bends than most sliders prefer, and the combination of speed and gravitational pull was too much for his 176-pound body to control.
Sliding diagonally, Kumaritashvili smashed into a corner entering the final straightaway feet-first. He was knocked off his sled and sailed in the other direction, apparently hitting his head before coming to rest on a metal walkway. His sled stayed on the track and skidded to a stop near the finish line.
The first rescue worker just happened to be nearby and was at his side within three seconds.
At the finish line, there was a loud gasp as onlookers watched in horror as he was catapulted helplessly through the air. Officials quickly switched off a giant TV screen showing the action on the track and did not show a replay of the incident. Soon after, the track was closed as local and Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept media members at a distance as the investigation began.
Kumaritashvili's inexperience may have played a factor in the crash, but he had qualified to compete. This would have been his first Olympics. He competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.
"When you are going that fast it just takes one slip and you can have that big mistake," U.S. doubles luger Christian Niccum said Thursday, when asked about track safety. "All of us are very calm going down, but if you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick reactions, that sled will steer. That's the difference between luge and bobsled and skeleton, we're riding on a very sharp edge and that sled will go exactly where we tell it to so you better be telling it the right things on the way down."
Earlier in the day, two-time Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled on Curve 11. Zoeggeler came off his sled and held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.
Training days in Whistler have been crash-filled. A Romanian woman was knocked unconscious and at least four Americans -- Chris Mazdzer on Wednesday, Megan Sweeney on Thursday and both Benshoof and Bengt Walden on Friday in the same training session where Zoeggeler wrecked -- have had serious trouble just getting down the track.
Rogge said he was in contact with Kumaritashvili's family -- the slider's father is president of the Georgian luge federation and his cousin is the team's coach, VANOC officials said -- and the Georgian government. The remaining seven members of the Georgian Olympic delegation decided to stay in the games and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate.
They marched into BC Place Stadium wearing black armbands and their nation's red-and-white flag was trimmed with a black ribbon. Later, a full minute of silence was observed in honor of Kumaritashvili, the fourth competitor to die at the Winter Games, all in training, and the first since 1992.
"It's really unfortunate to have something like that happen," U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White said. "We're all in different sports and from different countries but when we get here, we're all part of the same family. It's definitely affected everyone here."
Under giant Olympic rings near the medals plaza in downtown Whistler, mourners placed candles and flowers around a photograph of Kumaritashvili, on his sled and barreling down the track. Around the photo, an inscription read: "In Memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, May he rest in peace."
Crashes happen often in luge -- at least 12 sliders have wrecked just this week on the daunting Whistler surface. Still, some who have been around tracks their entire lives couldn't remember someone actually being thrown over the wall.
"It's a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said.
Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn't believe the Whistler track was unsafe.
"People have the opinion it is dangerous but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe," he said. "My opinion is that it's not any more dangerous than anywhere else."