Questions swirl around whether the track was approaching the point of being too dangerous. Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili was a skilled luger, Georgia's minister for culture and sport said Friday.
Whistler and Vancouver, British Columbia
“I’d like to especially stress one point. As questions were raised to his [level of] experience, I’d like to inform you that he was from a place in Georgia with long snow sports tradition,” said Mr. Rurua, noting that Kumaritashvili had taken 11th in training yesterday and had been ranked 44th so far on this season's World Cup circuit. “He was well-qualified, very hard worker in this particular field. Insinuations and speculation about his experience to me seems a little unfair and misleading.”
Rurua’s comments underscored concerns that had been voiced all week by Olympians from a range of countries. More than a few athletes had a rough go of training during Friday, adding to the buzz about whether the newest international track had crossed a red line from fast to unsafe.
"On the first run, I had some problems in the lower portion of the track. Because of the physics of the curves, and going at 95 miles per hour, there's a really small margin for error,” said American Tony Benshoof, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest luge speed. “You really need to get it right from curve nine to get as far as curve 13, because once you get to curve 11 and 12, you're going too fast to correct yourself."
Rurua said the Georgian delegation had been promised a quick and thorough investigation of Kumaritashvili’s crash on the last turn of the 16-curve course. Though devastated, the team had decided to press on with their Olympic events – just as they did when Georgia was invaded by Russia during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Games.
“Our sportsmen and our athletes decided to be loyal to the spirit of Olympic games and they will compete and dedicate their performance to their teammate,” said Rurua.
While luge is sometimes mocked as taking little effort or skill, it is in fact a highly nuanced sport that demands incredible precision, says Olympic silver medalist Gordy Sheer, who now serves as marketing director for USA Luge.
“You’re on a sled going 90-95 m.p.h., inches off the ice, and trying to put the sled within one or two inches of an imaginary line,” explains Sheer. “There’s a natural urge to look where your line is, but if you lift your head up, your time just evaporates.”
And with no suspension system, they have to use their bodies as shock absorbers – without moving in a way that will make the sled veer.
All this on runners made to be as dull as possible. While runners can be sharpened to give more control, that’s a luxury few are willing to give themselves in a sport that’s time to the thousandths of a second.
In sum, luge is about as easy as driving a car with bald tires full speed down a curvy road in a snowstorm and trying to keep the tires exactly on the yellow line – all while steering with your feet and looking at the ceiling, being able to see only out of the corner of your eye.
But while luge athletes are accustomed to handling the unique challenges of “the fastest sport on ice,” the Whistler track approaches the point of being too dangerous, says five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette of the US team.
“I think we’re probably getting close,” said Grimmette the night before Kumaritashvili’s crash. “You definitely have to be on your game from [curve] 11 down. I think that’s definitely something they’re going to have to take into account when they design future tracks.”
Grimmette, whose analytical, even-handed approach helped him become the US flag-bearer for tonight’s opening ceremonies, said tracks don’t have to get faster to be a better test of sliders’ capabilities.
“It doesn’t need to be faster in order to be trickier,” he said, noting that sliders reach only 70-75 m.p.h. on the Lake Placid track, but that a couple of curve combinations make it a hard course. And, he added, “It doesn’t need to be faster to be more exciting.”
But in press conferences this week, numerous athletes said they really liked this track, including American Erin Hamlin, the reigning world champion, and Meagean Simister of the Canadian team.
Simister’s teammate Alex Gough added that while she gets butterflies at European tracks, the Whistler one feels like home. Others pointed out that the 2006 Olympic track in Cesana, Italy, was controversial at first, but once athletes became accustomed to the course, it became a non-issue.
The number of runs Canadians have had on their track, compared with the fewer opportunities afforded to other teams under international rules, has raised some concerns and criticism from other countries.
In the wake of Kumaritashvili’s crash, however, such divisions fell to the background as luge teams from around the world expressed their condolences to the Georgian delegation.
"USA Luge expresses its deepest sympathies to the family of Nodar Kumaritashvili, his teammates and coaches as well as the entire delegation from Georgia," said USA Luge executives Dwight Bell and Ron Rossi in a statement Friday afternoon. "He will remain in our prayers."
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Christa trained full time for the Olympics between 1997 and 2002. Follow her on Twitter during the opening ceremonies.