An alternate driver on Latvia's Olympic bobsled team was killed during a practice run when he when he plowed headfirst into an empty sled that had drifted into his path.

Girts Ostenieks, 33, was on a skeleton sled travelling at about 57 km/h mph when a blade on the errant sled pierced his skull, officials said. He died instantly.

A skeleton is a small, brakeless sled on which riders lay down with their heads at the front.

It was the first fatality at the Sigulda Bobsled Track, 48 kilometres northeast of the capital, Riga. The track, built when Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, is the scheduled site of the 2003 world luge championships.

Officials said the second vehicle belonged to the Russian women's national bobsled team, which was practising nearby. It lost control of a four-seat sled, which slid onto the track and overturned seconds before Ostenieks sped into view.

"Everybody yelled, 'Look up, look up,'" said track director Dainis Dukurs, who witnessed the accident. "But when he lifted his head, it was too late."

Dukurs said the Russian women's bobsled team failed to close a safety gate that would have prevented its sled from coasting onto the track. Russian team members weren't immediately available for comment.

Soviet bobsled teams trained in Sigulda before Latvia regained independence in 1991. Russian teams have continued to train at the facility.