Olympics Winter

Georgian luger dies in crash

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died Friday in a horrific crash in an Olympic training run at Whistler, just hours before the opening ceremony.

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died Friday in a horrific crash in an Olympic training run at Whistler, B.C., just hours before the Games opening ceremony.

Kumaritashvili was coming around the final 270-degree turn, where speeds approach 140 kilometres an hour, when he flipped off his sled and flew into a metal pole.

Medics administered CPR to the 21-year-old from Borjomi, Georgia, before he was lifted into an ambulance. An air-rescue helicopter arrived eight minutes after the crash.

Curve 16 to be altered

Olympic officials have decided to make some changes to the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre following the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Officials from the International Luge Federation and the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee say their investigation found "no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."

They said the track would reopen Saturday morning with changes "to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again."

The wall will be raised at the exit of Curve 16, the last on the course and where Kumaritashvili lost control, went airborne and slammed into a steel pole. Other unspecified changes will be made to the ice. 

-Canadian Press

Luge training was suspended temporarily and the B.C. Coroners Service, assisted by the RCMP, began conducting an investigation into the fatality at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

Members of the International Luge Federation were called for a briefing and team captains from each country were asked to attend a meeting. 

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge had difficulty keeping his composure at a brief, sombre media conference.

"This is a very sad day. The IOC is in deep mourning," he said. "Here you have a young athlete who lost his life in pursuing his passion. He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games, he trained hard, and had this fatal accident.

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

Rogge said the IOC had been in touch with Kumaritashvili's family, and that he had a conversation with Mikheil Saakashvili, the president of the Georgia, who is attending the Games. 

John Furlong, the CEO of the organizing group VANOC, shared Rogge's sentiments.

"We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here," Furlong said. "It's not something that I had prepared for, or ever thought I would need to be prepared for."

Furlong expressed his condolences to the friends and family of Kumaritashvili, "who came to Vancouver to follow his Olympic dream."

VANOC will conduct a complete investigation, he said.

"The accident is tragic. It will be investigated, and when we know the substance of what happened, you will know it."

Nodar Kumaritashvili was speeding around the final 270-degree turn at 140 kms an hour when he flipped off his sled. ((The New York Times))

As mark of respect for their "fallen comrade," the Georgian Olympic team will still compete in the Vancouver Games, Georgian Sport and Culture Minister Nicholas Rurua told a Vancouver media conference later Friday.

Dick Pound, Canada's senior IOC member, told CBC News: "The Games go on with a little bit of a cloud and sorrow. And I think what to do in luge is analyze this and say, 'Are we making the tracks too demanding for athletes or is it one of these things that, because there's a high risk in a lot of these winter sports, it was just not his day?"

Kumaritashvili went high in the corner, banking left, near the finish of the run. His sled swooped out from under him and he rocketed through the air, turning backward as he launched into a thick metal pillar that supports the canopy above the finish area.

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 to Kumaritashvili.

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

Medics administered CPR to the bloodied Kumaritashvili before he was loaded into an ambulance. An air-rescue helicopter arrived eight minutes after the crash and the slider was taken to a medical facility at the athletes' village south of Whistler.

Video of the crash was posted on YouTube — but was quickly removed.

Alpine skier Brad Spence of Calgary wrote on Twitter: "My thoughts and condolences go out to the family and friends of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. What a tragedy."

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

It was his second crash during training for the Vancouver Games. He also failed to finish his second of his six practice runs.

"Half the time in luge, people are shaking their heads and saying, 'You're heading down this track, feet first, in something you can't really steer — isn't that crazy?' But in kind of a funny way. And now you realize there's a huge degree of skill and risk involved," said Pound.

Concerns over sliding track

"This is the first time we've seen this. It's very sad," said Canadian luge team coach Wolfgang Staudinger, who was in the finish area. He said he planned to meet with his team to discuss what happened.

The $105-million sliding centre, on the southeast face of Blackcomb Mountain, has been billed as a wild ride and the crash happened at its fastest point.

The 1,450-metre course has 16 turns and drops steeply for 152 metres, the longest drop of any track in the world. The average grade is about 11 per cent, including two stomach-inverting drops of 20 per cent.

Canadian world champion skeleton racer Mellisa Hollingsworth has called the Whistler course the most challenging track in the world.

It was the second crash of the day on the course after defending Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy lost control on the lower part of the track. He didn't appear to be injured. On Thursday, Romanian women's slider Violeta Stramaturaru crashed and had to be airlifted out.

More than a dozen athletes have crashed during Olympic training.

Harper statement

Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his condolences to the Georgian Olympic team and Kumaritashvili's family.

"All Canadians were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Georgian Olympic team member Nodar Kumaritashvili following a luge training accident in Whistler today. His competitive spirit and dedication to sports excellence will be remembered and honoured during the Games," Harper said in a statement.

"On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I send our deepest sympathies to Mr. Kumaritashvili's family and friends and the entire Georgian Winter Olympic team."

The luge competition was scheduled to begin Saturday. There was no immediate word if the men's singles event would be delayed.

With files from The Canadian Press