Medical personnel and track workers tend to Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Whistler Sliding Centre on Friday.

The potential for serious injury and death is substantially higher in Winter Olympic sports, where athletes hurl themselves off the faces of mountains and rocket down chutes carved out of unyielding ice.

Alpine skiing, skeleton, bobsled, luge — these are sports whose practitioners risk their lives virtually every time they push off, whether it's in a practice run or competition.

The death Friday of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training run just hours before the start of the Vancouver Games served as a tragic and unsettling reminder of the risks faced by high-performance Olympic athletes.

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

There was opposition to including luge in the Games, with some arguing it put participants in too much danger. Their point was underscored 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 leadup to the 1964 Olympics. Ross Milne, 19, an Australian downhill skier, was killed after careening off the course and smashing into a tree during a training run.

Skiing also saw a death at the 1992 Albertville Games. Nicholas Bochatay, a Swiss speed skier, died after crashing into a grooming machine during a practice run. Speed skiing was a demonstration sport at those Olympics.

Kumaritashvili's death is not the first at a Canadian Olympics. The chief doctor of the Austrian team, Jorg Oberhammer, was killed in an interval in competition at the 1988 Calgary Games when he collided with another skier and was knocked into the path of a snow-clearing machine.

It has been 50 years since a Summer Games athlete has died during an Olympic competition, a fatality that occurred on the first day of competition in Rome. Danish cyclist Knut Jensen fell from his bicycle in the sweltering heat at the 1960 Olympics and hit his head on the road, dying later that day.

The official cause of death was ruled as heatstroke, but an autopsy revealed the presence of amphetamines in his system, one of the events that helped spur a greater emphasis later in the decade on testing for performance enhancing drugs.

Jensen was one of two Summer Games participants killed during competition in Olympics. Portuguese marathon runner Francisco Lazaro, 21, collapsed during his event in the 1912 Games and died the next day.

The most famous Olympic deaths were not related to competition. At the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes, coaches and team officials were killed after being taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists belonging to a group called Black September.

With files from CBCSports.ca