Georgian luger killed on training run
VANCOUVER - A luger hurtling at nearly 90 m.p.h. down a track that athletes had warned was dangerously fast was killed when he lost control on a training run yesterday, casting a shadow of grief over what was already a troubled Olympics even before the Games could begin.
Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, a slider from the nation of Georgia, flew over the track wall and slammed into an unpadded steel pole near the finish.
"Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion," said a clearly shaken Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. "He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident.
"I have no words to say what we feel."
News of the crash filtered down from the mountains as the Olympic flame was still making its way past cheering crowds through the downtown streets of Vancouver.
Mourning took the place of anticipation just hours before the opening ceremonies, with the organizers suddenly faced with the task of balancing the shock of the death with the joyful spirit of the Games.
It was the first time since 1992, in Albertville, France, that a Winter Olympian had died in training, and the fourth time ever.
Death also haunted the last Games hosted by Canada - in 1988, in Calgary, an Austrian team doctor fell under a snow machine.
Rushing down the track, Kumaritashvili got into trouble when he took the next-to-last curve at a higher path than most lugers would prefer and careened up the banked, icy wall.
He slid diagonally down the wall with his feet pointed the wrong way. Entering the final straightaway, as he hit the corner with his body, he was knocked off his sled and shot across the track, arms and legs flailing.
Less than a second later, Kumaritashvili's upper body struck a steel post in place to hold up a metal roof along the end of the track. He came to rest on a metal walkway, his left leg in the air and left foot propped atop the track wall.
Rescue workers got to him within seconds and began lifesaving efforts, but Kumaritashvili died shortly afterward at a nearby hospital.
In an inherently dangerous sport - one that sends supine athletes on sleds down a twisting, ice-packed track - Whistler's was known as probably the fastest in the world, and crashes had already marred the days leading up to competition.
"It is a nervous situation," Atis Strenga, president of the Latvian luge federation, said after the crash. "I hope, we all hope, it's the first accident and the last accident in this race."
It was the second crash for Kumaritashvili, who ranked 44th in the world standings this year and also failed to finish his second of six practice runs. His first crash occurred Wednesday night.
Earlier yesterday, the gold-medal favorite, Armin Zoeggeler of Italy, fell off his sled and had to hold it with his left arm just to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.
Athletes had raised concerns about the safety of the track. Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg went so far as to wonder aloud, a day before the fatal crash, whether lugers were being made into "crash-test dummies" thrown down the course.
Christian Niccum, half of an American doubles team, crashed during a World Cup event in Whistler last year. He said Thursday that the speed of the track was becoming excessive.
"It was just a simple rollover and we weren't bruised or anything, but when I hit that ice going 90 m.p.h., it turns into fire," he said. "I remember coming around to the finish, and I just wanted to rip off my suit - 'I'm on fire. I'm on fire.' "
The remaining seven members of the Georgian Olympic delegation planned to compete despite the tragedy and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate.
As the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing got under way, athletes from Georgia anxiously followed developments from back home after a bombardment by tanks and planes from neighboring Russia.
"This is a nation that has gone through an awful lot in the last three, four years," Vice President Biden said while addressing U.S. athletes shortly before the opening ceremonies.
"It's a small nation of five million people, and the pride they had in representing their country here at the Olympics, and now to suffer this loss is just tragic," he said
Men's luge training was canceled for the day and the organizers pledged an investigation, but it was not clear how the track might be made reliably safe in time for competition.
"This is a time for sorrow," Rogge said. "It is not a time to look for reasons that it happened."
Training in Whistler has been crash-filled. Besides Zoeggeler's tumble yesterday, a Romanian woman was briefly knocked unconscious and at least four Americans have had serious trouble just getting down the track.
They were Chris Mazdzer on Wednesday, Megan Sweeney on Thursday, and both Tony Benshoof and Bengt Walden yesterday in the same training session at which Zoeggeler wrecked.
Five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette, a luger chosen as the U.S. flag bearer, said the speeds on the track were pushing the boundaries of safety.
"We're probably getting close," he said Thursday. "This track is fast, and you definitely have to be on your game."
Problems had already been dogging these Games. Training runs for the men's and women's downhill were canceled yesterday because of rain overnight, and the first women's alpine event, the super-combined, was postponed from Sunday.
At Cypress Mountain, site of the freestyle skiing and snowboard competitions, more than 100,000 cubic feet of snow had to be trucked in because there hadn't been a significant storm since the middle of January.
Moreover, the organizers had to change the course of the torch itself yesterday because of protesters waiting as the flame entered a poor, drug-addled Vancouver neighborhood. Mounted police prevented about 150 demonstrators from confronting the relay.
At the 1992 Albertville Games, Nicholas Bochatay of Switzerland died after crashing into a snow-grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport of speed skiing.
Australian downhill skier Ross Milne died when he struck a tree during a training run shortly before the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, Austria. British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki also died in a crash during training in Innsbruck.
Associated Press sportswriters Stephen Wilson, Tim Reynolds, and Tom Withers contributed to this article.