Sliding faster than ever before, 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed into the wall entering the final straight of a training run and was killed after smashing into an unpadded steel girder.
Flirting with 145 kph speeds on a $100 million track, Kumaritashvili lost control and his body went airborne, arms and legs flailing over the opposite side of the track. Paramedics began working on Kumaritashvili within seconds, quickly starting chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, all to no avail.
The IOC said Kumaritashvili was pronounced dead at a trauma center in Whistler.
Less than an hour after the accident, a representative from each team was told the grim news. With that, tears began flowing across the close-knit sliding world and throughout the Olympic family.
“I have no words,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said, “to say what we feel.”
Within an hour of the accident, an investigation was opened. Security officials closed access to the crash area and the remainder of the track for the rest of the day, and all further training runs scheduled for Friday were cancelled.
Women’s luge Olympians are scheduled to train at the track Saturday morning, nine hours before the men’s two-day competition is set to begin.
“It is a nervous situation,” Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said. “It’s a big tragedy for all (of) luge. I hope, we all hope, it’s the first accident and the last accident in this race.”
The danger of the Whistler track has been talked about for months — particularly after several countries were upset with restrictions over access to the facility by nations other than Canada, some noting it could lead to a safety issue. Some sliders, especially those from small luge federations, saw the world’s fastest track this week for the first time.
“When you are going that fast it just takes one slip and you can have that big mistake,” United States doubles luger Christian Niccum said on Thursday, when asked about track safety. “All of us are very calm going down, but it you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick reactions, that sled will steer. That’s the difference between luge and bobsled and skeleton, we’re riding on a very sharp edge and that sled will go exactly where we tell it to so you better be telling it the right things on the way down.”
There was speculation that having the men’s sliders start from the women’s ramp — which would shorten the course and possibly keep speed a bit more in check — was among the options being considered.
Officials in Vancouver and Whistler both stressed that no decisions regarding what happens next would be made before the initial investigation is complete.
Rogge said he was in contact with both Kumaritashvili’s family and officials from the Georgian government. The remaining seven members of the Georgian Olympic delegation said they would stay in the games and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate.
Under giant Olympic rings near the medals plaza in downtown Whistler, mourners placed candles and flowers around a photograph of Kumaritashvili, on his sled and barreling down the track. Around the photo, an inscription read: “In Memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, May he rest in peace.”
Kumaritashvili is the fourth competitor to die at the Winter Games, all in training, and the first since 1992.
Crashes happen often in luge — at least 12 sliders have wrecked just this week on the daunting Whistler surface. Still, some who have been around tracks their entire lives couldn’t remember someone actually being thrown over the wall.
“It’s a very rare situation,” three—time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said, clearly shaken after seeing Kumaritashvili tended to furiously by medical workers.
Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn’t believe the Whistler track was unsafe.
“People have the opinion it is dangerous but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe,” he said. “My opinion is that it’s not any more dangerous than anywhere else.”
VANOC officials said the investigation was taking place to “ensure a safe field of play.”
“As athletes, we know that the international federation, the IOC and VANOC have no higher priority than ensuring our safety, on and off the field of play,” said British luger A.J. Rosen, who dislocated his hip in a crash at the Whistler track last fall. “I know they are looking into this and, should it be deemed necessary for them to introduce additional measures, they will do so.”
This was Kumaritashvili’s second crash during training for the games, the first coming Wednesday in the opening session. He also failed to finish his second of six practice runs.
Sliding diagonally, Kumaritashvili smashed into a corner entering the final straight feet—first. He was knocked off his sled and sailed in the other direction, coming to rest on a metal walkway after his upper body smashed into the post. The first rescue worker just happened to be nearby and was at his side within three seconds.
“His competitive spirit and dedication to sports excellence will be remembered and honored during the games,” Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said.
This would have been Kumaritashvili’s first Olympics. He competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.
Earlier in the day, gold—medal favourite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled on Curve 11. Zoeggeler came off his sled and held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.
Training days in Whistler have been crash—filled. A Romanian woman was knocked unconscious and at least four Americans have had serious trouble just getting down the track.
“RIP Nodar Kumaritashvili,” American skeleton athlete Kyle Tress, who did not qualify for the Olympic team, wrote on his Twitter feed. “Let’s never forget how dangerous these sports can be.”