Georgian luger dies in Olympic training crash

Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia is seen just before crashing during a training run for the men's singles luge at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, Friday, Feb. 12, 2010. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

WHISTLER, B.C. - Higher. Faster. Stronger. And for Nodar Kumaritashvili, deadly.

The 2010 Winter Olympics opened on a tragic note Friday with the death of the Georgian luger in a horrific training run crash.

The first Olympian to die at the Games since 1992, the 21-year-old lost control of his sled on the final turn at the Whistler Sliding Centre, went over the track wall and rocketed into a support pole near the finish line. Despite the frantic efforts of medical help on site, he subsequently died in hospital.

The horrific crash cast a pall over the Games' opening ceremonies in Vancouver and dampened spirits in rain-sodden Whistler.

It also raised questions about the safety of an unforgiving track that has been described as the fastest in the world — and whose proclivities were eerily foreshadowed on the eve of Kumaritashvili's death.

"I think they are pushing it a little too much," Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg said Thursday night after she nearly lost control in training. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."

The investigation into the death is being conducted by the RCMP and the Coroners Service of British Columbia, who issued a joint statement later Friday saying they had completed their work at the site. But the track was to remain closed until luge's world governing body had ensured it was safe to reopen.

"It is unknown at this time how long the run will be shut down," the RCMP and Coroners Service said in a joint statement.

The women's lugers are scheduled to train at the track Saturday morning, nine hours before the men's two-day competition is set to begin.

Flags will fly at half-mast at Games venues Saturday and for the entire Olympics at the Sliding Centre.

A shaken Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said Friday was a time for mourning, not looking for causes of the crash. That will come later, when an investigation is complete.

"Sorry, it's a bit difficult to remain composed. This is a very sad day," he told a packed news conference in Vancouver, pausing to take off his glasses and control his emotions. "The IOC's in deep mourning."

Georgian Sport Minister Nikolos Rurua said Kumaritashvili's teammates will persevere, noting his country was invaded by Russia during the 2008 Beijing Games and yet the athletes continued to perform.

"So our sportsmen and our athletes decided to be loyal to the spirit of Olympic Games and they will compete and dedicate their performance to their fallen comrade," said the tearful minister.

"We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here," said VANOC CEO John Furlong, also struggling to hold back his emotions.

With the fastest lugers hitting speeds in excess of 150 km/h, the crash prompted immediate questions about safety on the Whistler course.

Rurua was also asked whether the Georgians had been given enough training runs on the track, given Canada's hardball stance about limiting foreign access to the facilities in the run-up to the Games. The Georgian acknowledged there will be "speculation whether there was sufficient practice time."

Kumaritashvili was coming around the final 270-degree turn on the stomach-churning course when he flipped off his sled and was hurled like a missile into one of the thick metal pillars. The stanchions support the canopy around parts of the course that helps keep the sun off and the track cool.

The slider, a blur in his black-and-blue racing suit and white helmet went high in the corner, banking left. His sled swooped out from under him, hit the inside wall and the Georgian flew through the air, turning backwards as he launched into the square pillar on the outside of the track.

There was a collective gasp on the finish dock from officials and athletes as the crash was beamed on the large-screen TVs.

The screens were immediately turned off as crews raced down the track to the stricken racer.

The graphic footage was shown on host broadcaster CTV, although it said it was doing so "with discretion" and with a warning to viewers. On some occasions, it stopped short of showing the final impact.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will be in Whistler on Saturday for the start of the downhill events, issued a statement saying "all Canadians were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death . . . . His competitive spirit and dedication to sports excellence will be remembered and honoured during the Games."

In Whistler, a rowdy ski town where a significant proportion of the young population appears in arm slings or on crutches due to the mountain's furious appetite, the death took its toll.

Michelle Ostafew, an Olympic volunteer from Vernon, B.C., said the crash has deeply affected locals whose opinion of having the Games plopped in their laps has steadily evolved.

"Before this, everybody was a little angry about the Olympics, and when it started happening people started being excited about it, and I think this will affect people," said Ostafew. "I know I have a girlfriend that was affected very personally and she was like, 'I don't even know the guy.'

"It will certainly create more respect for the sport. You realize how serious it is."

Luge is considered the most dangerous of the sliding sports. Lying on their back on a spartan sled, athletes rocket down a twisting course like a cylinder in a pneumatic tube. There is little margin for error.

The Whistler track, designed with the guidance of Canadian officials and representatives from the international sliding sports organizations, was not intentionally designed to be the fastest ever, but was built to challenge the sliders, said Craig Lehto, the general manager of the centre, in a recent interview.

For some athletes, it's too fast.

Kumaritashvili, a relatively inexperienced luger, had competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.

He had already crashed once earlier during training for the Vancouver Games, and he failed to finish his second of six practice runs.

More than a dozen athletes have crashed during Olympic training.

Defending Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy lost control on the lower part of the track Friday. He didn't appear to be injured. On Thursday, Romania's Violeta Stramaturaru crashed and had to be airlifted out.

After Friday's training was cancelled, members of the International Luge Federation and individual team captains were called for a briefing.

"This is a terrible accident," said Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation. "This is the very gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the luge family, are naturally with those touched by this event."

Added B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell: "The loss of a gifted, talented young athlete training for the opening of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games is heartbreaking for people around the globe. We all want to see athletes compete hard and succeed in their chosen sports, but at the same time our paramount concern is always for their safety and health."

Medics were seen performing mouth-to-mouth on the Georgian, his helmet still on, face up on the cement beside the track and an ambulance. Track officials then ordered all bystanders away.

Video of the crash was soon posted on YouTube — and pulled down for TV rights violation.

CTV and its sister stations initially aired the footage of the crash "with discretion," then stopped altogether.

The Whistler track is used by sliders in all three of the Olympic sliding sports. Bobsledders, skeleton racers and men's singles luge sliders all start from the top. Female luge sliders and the men's doubles start 252 metres lower down the course.

Luge is a century-old sport, originating in Europe, and became an official Olympic sport in 1964. The sliders push off from the start handles at the top, paddle on the ice with spiked gloves to pick up speed, then lie on their backs, guiding the sleds with their legs and shoulders, keeping their heads slightly tilted up to see where they're going.

The top speeds from male lugers reach 150 km/h and higher, the fastest among the sliders and equivalent in speed only to the massive four-man bobsleds. But unlike bobsledders, lugers are precariously exposed. The only protection is a helmet and light padding under skin-tight speedsuits. With their arms tightly tucked in at their sides they cannot brace easily for impact when the sled goes out from under them, as happened with Kumaritashvili.

Kumaritashvili's death was an eerie echo of an event that marred his sport's introduction to the Olympic Games at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1964.

There had been opposition to including luge in the Games, with some arguing it put participants in too much danger. Their point was proved two weeks before the Games began when a British luger — Polish-born Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski — died in a crash during a practice run on the Olympic track.

Kay-Skrzypeski was not the only athlete to die in the lead-up to the 1964 Olympics. Ross Milne, 19, an Australian downhill skier, was killed after careering off the course and smashing into a tree during a training run.

In the 1992 Albertville Games, Swiss speed skier Nicholas Bochatay died in training for the demonstration sport.

The Albertville fatality echoed a tragedy which occurred at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. The chief doctor of the Austrian team, Jorg Oberhammer, was killed during a break in competition when he collided with another skier and was knocked into the path of a snow-clearing machine.

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- With files from The Associated Press