German takes first luge gold

Felix Loch, 20, who tore shoulder ligaments in a crash on the Whistler track in 2008, posted the fastest time in all four runs.

Associated Press

Felix Loch, 20, who tore shoulder ligaments in a crash on the Whistler track in 2008, posted the fastest time in all four runs.

WHISTLER, British Columbia — For a welcome moment, grief gave way to gold in luge.

Germany's Felix Loch, speeding safely through the final curve where a fellow Olympian died two days earlier, won a gold medal Sunday and brought brief comfort to a sport rocked by criticism that it puts performance above protection of its athletes.

Loch finished his four heats in 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds, well ahead of teammate David Moeller (3:13.764) and Italy's Armin Zoeggeler (3:14.375), the two-time defending champion.

Officials, under pressure after 21-year-old Georgian Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a practice crash Friday, shortened the track by moving the men's, women's and doubles starts down the mountain. The alterations have worked to slow the sleds, but they may have tilted the balance of competition.

American Tony Benshoof, who finished eighth, understood and respected the reasoning behind the moves, but that didn't mean he liked it.

"Lowering the start really, really put me at a disadvantage," said Benshoof, who spent two years preparing for a steep start on the Whistler track, which he felt suited his strengths. "The second they did that, they basically gave the Germans two medals, which was frustrating. But I'm not making excuses. We all had the same situation."

Kumaritashvili died after being thrown from his sled at nearly 90 mph and catapulted into an exposed steel beam. The spot is now marked as a memorial with candles and flowers.

Loch, 20, already a two-time world champion, is the youngest luge Olympic gold medalist in history. German Dettlef Gunther was 21 when he won gold in 1976.

Meanwhile, top women lugers continued to voice their displeasure with their starting-line move. German gold-medal hopeful Natalie Geisenberger said the course — women have a lower starting point than men — now essentially seems like one built for children.

In Georgia, Kumaritashvili's father, David, a former luger, said Olympic organizers shouldn't have permitted the use of the course. "The course was bad," he said on Georgian television. "They shouldn't have built the track allowing such a speed. It was a serious mistake."

He told the Wall Street Journal his son had called three days before his death and said he was terrified by at least one section of the track.

Kumaritashvili's body will leave this afternoon for Georgia, the Associated Press reported. Kumaritashvili is to be buried in his hometown, Bukuriani, a small ski resort about 110 miles from Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic.

German takes first luge gold 02/14/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 14, 2010 11:35pm]

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