Georgian luger’s death prompts concerns about track safety and disregard of speed complaints

March 16, 2010 — by Christine Bancroft and Roy Bisht

Since the opening of the Whistler Sliding Centre in 2008, many have called the luge track “too fast” or “unsafe.” People believed that one day, the track would take the life of one of its competitors. But they never expected that a fatal accident would occur so soon, as Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvilli was killed after losing control of his sled and slamming into a steel pole during a practice run on Feb. 12, the opening day of the Olympics.

Regardless of the many complaints about the track, no actions were taken to make track any safer until after Kumaritsahvilli’s death, when they changed the ice profile and added a wooden wall where he lost control. Lugers typically travel at speeds of 75-85 miles per hour, and, at the Whistler track, speeds of 95.7 mph have been, albeit rarely, reached. When Kumaritashvilli made contact with the steel pole, he was traveling 89.2 mph.

Vancouver’s officials, including the Coroner’s Service of British Columbia and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), attributed the Kumaritashvili’s death to “inexperience.” Kumaritashvili came out of turn 15 too late and was traveling too quickly to compensate for turn 16, causing him to fly off the track. But Kumaritashvili had been luging for almost his entire life and was internationally ranked 44th out of 65 world-class competitors at the Olympic Games; if he isn’t experienced enough to travel the course, then who is?

This is luging’s first death since Dec. 10, 1975, and the first Olympic athlete to die at the Winter Olympics in training since 1992. In the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, Great Britain’s luger Kazimierz Kay-Skryzpeski of Great Britain was killed at a luge track as well. It’s not much of a coincidence that the first luge death in 35 years occurred on what has been considered the “most dangerous track on the planet.”

After such a horrid incident, the Whistler track was updated in order to fall in line with safety regulations. The starting point for men’s luging was moved to the women’s starting point; the ice profiles were changed to lower the speeds and for safety; and any unprotected steel support beams were covered.

But this tragic death could have been prevented had Olympic officials taken heed of the warnings and listened to the complaints of the public. Just before Kumaritashvili’s death, Romania’s Violeta Stramaturaru was knocked unconscious on the track. American luger Megan Sweeney, who slid just after Stramaturaru, went airborne on the final curve and crashed. Sweeney walked away, but was badly shaken. During the competition, Romania’s Mihaela Chiras crashed during her second run.

The track was obviously far too slick and fast for competition. A crash was inevitable, and despite Kumaritashvili’s experience, he still fell victim to a direct byproduct of the Olympic board’s authority. Wisely learning from mistakes, Russia is working with the International Luging Federation in preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Sochi. No doubt the track will be much slower in speed, ensuring a safe yet challenging, course for these world-ranked lugers.

Kumaritazhvili’s death was tragic in itself, but the true tragedy lies in its easy prevention. If the Olympic committee members had only paid attention to the warnings and complaints of numerous experts and the general public, a death wrought by the ultimate celebration of a sport may have been avoided. Now, a promising young athlete is dead, an entire country is in mourning and an international sports festival was overshadowed by an avoidable accident.

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