Saturday, February 13, 2010

Delaney: Whistler death leads to questions

The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili after a training run Friday has raised issues about luge, luge tracks and track safety.

Before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, much of the discussion about luge centered on the Whistler track. The track is the fastest in the world because of an approximately 500-foot drop - the equivalent of 49 stories - at the the top of the course. This feature is most noticeable on the men's track which is slightly longer than the starts where the women's and doubles sliders enter the course.

There are more than two sides to this story, and it is too soon for clarity. There are more questions than answers.

Is the Whistler track too fast? Were proper safety precautions taken? Did Kumaritashvili, seemingly an inexperienced slider, have a sufficient number of runs at Whistler to compete in the Olympic Games?

The Georgian federation said he did through the International Luge Federation on Saturday morning. USA Luge CEO Ron Rossi questioned the ability of inexperienced sliders to navigate Whistler more than six months ago. Rossi, a former doubles slider for the U.S., said the most difficult thing to teach a luge athlete is to keep his or her head back when they are sliding down a track at 90 mph.

There is a tendency, Rossi said, for young sliders to lift the head for perspective. When an athlete does this, it alters the way the sled sits on the ice and steering is compromised. It can lead to accidents because of the sled's speed.

"That is the fear realized," said Rossi Saturday.

Kumaritashvili was ranked 44th in the world and raced in the minimum five World Cup events to quality for the Olympics.

We don't know what happened with Kumaritashvili's run on Friday beyond he lost control and flew helplessly through the air. An FIL official said Saturday the run was routine leading into curve 15. The unknown might be solved with a change in track access.

It is tradition or practice in the sport for Olympic host countries to be stingy with track times for other countries. Perhaps the Canadians took this practice too far but why wouldn't they?

Before the 2002 Winter Olympics, USA Luge restricted additional track access for two key competitors: Austria and Italy. Rossi said the Germans knew their request for more time at Park City would be denied and so did not bother to ask.

A new Olympic track opens about a year before the Games. There is testing and two weeks of training time, but beyond that host countries can pick and choose the level of access for other nations.

A nation such as Georgia, considered in the luge community to be a weaker country in the sport, might require more time on a track than traditional powers such as Germany or Italy.

Three American athletes shared the view that the changes to track start locations for the Olympics were an unfortunate reaction to Kumaritashvili's accident. Luge is a fast and dangerous sport. They are part of the attraction for athletes such as Erin Hamlin, Megan Sweeney and Tony Benshoof.

So how does luge maintain its extreme-sport appeal, ensure safety and regulate access?

In time answers may come. For now, there are only questions.


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