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Olympic luger's death in 2010 triggered changes to Sochi track for 2014

By Tom Withers

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Feb. 6 2014 10:25 a.m. MST

Track staffers observe a moment of silence Saturday in honor of Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia, who died after a luge training accident on Friday.

Michael Sohn, Associated Press

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Everyone knew the danger. An uneasiness hung in the frosted Canadian air four years ago. Nerves were on edge.

For good reason.

Just hours before the flame was ignited on Feb. 12, 2010 in Vancouver, an otherwise typical morning in the picture-perfect Blackcomb Mountains turned tragic.

Back in Lake Placid, N.Y., Aidan Kelly was on his computer in study hall monitoring the luge competitors as they took their final training runs on the Whistler track before the start of the Winter Olympics.

Without warning, the screen went dark. Disaster, as some feared would happen, came in an unimaginable flash.

In one moment, the sport of luge was forever changed.

"I was that nerd kid who watched everything about luge," said Kelly, a U.S. luger who was just 15 at the time and dreaming of competing in the Olympics. "The guy on the track was going and going and then ... ."

And then Nodar Kumaritashvili, the slider Kelly was watching, was dead.

The worst-case scenario, the one foretold by startling speeds, experienced champions crashing during practice, even private predictions from sliding officials, had occurred. Kumaritashvili, an easygoing 21-year-old from a tiny skiing village in war-torn Georgia where his father and uncle raised him to slide, was thrown from his sled traveling at nearly 90 mph, faster than he had ever gone before.

Unable to navigate the last turn of the treacherous track, Kumaritashvili, who had escaped injury during an earlier wreck, went feet-first into one wall, the impact somehow ricocheting his body off the track and the back of his head struck an exposed steel pole within sight of the finish line.

He died instantly.

His death sapped joy from the games, and raised questions about safety and whether the sliding sports — bobsled, skeleton and luge — had pushed the threshold of human performance too far in trying to see how fast highly trained athletes on wind-tunnel-tested, state-of-the-art equipment could go on ice.

"What happened in Vancouver, people can term it as a freak accident but I think it taught a lesson to a lot of people in the sport to take a lot more care when it comes to safety issues," said Indian luger Shiva Keshavan. "That's what they've done here."

To help prevent another serious mishap, organizers for the Sochi Games designed a slower track, but one they believe will still challenge the world's top sliders and drivers.

The Sanki Sliding Center's course, where competition begins Saturday, includes three "uphill" sections that will reduce speeds up to 10 mph. The inclines will put a premium on racers minimizing their mistakes or risk losing even more speed.

Despite the modifications, it's plenty fast and will provide speed-craving athletes the rush they need.

"I do it for the speed and the adrenaline and the G force," said USA-1 bobsled driver Steven Holcomb. "It's fun. You don't get on a rollercoaster because you like the big safety harness. You do it because you like the speed and the adrenaline."

Because that mix can be catastrophic or fatal, Sanki's facility includes a heliport landing pad with an ambulance at the ready in case there's a medical emergency.

Even before the tragedy, Whistler's track had many fearing it might be too dangerous.

Documents showed that Vancouver and international luge officials debated the track's safety for several years. Those concerns grew early in practice sessions when several athletes crashed on the snaking speedway, where the most difficult curve is nicknamed "50-50" for the odds a slider would emerge unscathed.