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Death still on the minds of luge competitors

February 13, 2010 | 12:14 pm

Luge competitors struggled with two adjustments Saturday as they prepared for competition: the loss of a fellow slider in a terrifying training accident and a lower starting spot that federation officials hoped would provide some psychological comfort.

Olyblog “It’s fresh in our hearts,” said India’s Shiva Keshavan after a morning training run from the women’s start, about 100 feet down the track. “”We can’t compete with the same joy.”

Grim-faced U.S. sliders did not stop to take questions. 

Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, of the Republic of Georgia died within sight of the finish line Friday, when he lost control of his sled and was catapulted out of the track and into a unpadded roof support beam.

Gordy Sheer, a spokesman for USA Luge, said athletes had been offered counseling, but he did not know if any of them had accepted it.

“I have no idea what our athletes are going through now. No one has ever been though this before,” said Sheer, a 1998 Olympic silver medalist. “I’ve only seen them in the [track] outrun and the only talk has centered around the runs.”

Sheer said he had never seen a crash as violent as Kumaritashvili’s.

“I’ve been coming to tracks for years and years and for the first time this morning, I felt sick walking up,” he said.

Sheer said USA Luge would withhold comment until all investigations are completed.

In less than 24 hours, the mile-long track that was being hyped as the fastest in the world is being portrayed as a death trap capable of rattling the best sliders and consuming the rest.
International luge officials and executives with the Vancouver organizing committee have adopted a defensive posture since the accident.

At a news conference Saturday morning, Josef Fendt, the president of the international luge federation, insisted the track was safe.

“We never said that it was too fast,” he said through an interpreter. “We do not push our athletes to the limits.”

Tim Gayda, the Vancouver organizing committee’s vice president of sport, said that since the opening of the track to training and competition two years ago, luge athletes had completed about 5,000 runs.

“We believe...we did everything in our power to make the track as safe as you can,” he said. “We’re quite confident where we are.”

Svein Romstad, federation secretary, said after the accident, officials conferred with police investigators, watched videotape of the accident and walked the track to retrace Kumaritashvili's final seconds.

Traveling in excess of 80 mph, the slider was late steering his sled out of Curve 15, which made him late entering the final curve, nicknamed Thunderbird.

The G forces “literally collapsed his body” as Kumaritashvili struggled to correct his mistake which “put him at the mercy of the path of the sled,” Romstad said.

He said luge officials considered many options late Friday night, including cancellation of the event, but concluded that racing could be carried out safely with additional precautions.

Romstad insisted the change in the start location was not for safety but “to deal with the emotional components facing athletes.”

He said he was not aware of any athletes who were having second thoughts about competing.

But some were unhappy that the start had changed.
“Until yesterday, I was still in the medals ranks. Today it’s not a race,” complained Manuel Pfister of Austria. "Men’s sliding is faster. Now from the women’s [start] it’s too slow.”

Sheer said athletes have no choice but to adapt.

“Everybody’s on the same level,” he said. “The athletes who adapt quickly will do well.”

The first of two runs begins at 5 p.m. PST. Men's competition will conclude with two runs tomorrow.

-- Candus Thomson

Photo: Shiva Keshava. Credit: AP.