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Luger's death after crash mars opening of Winter Olympics in Vancouver

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It took three seconds.

Sliding faster than ever in his life, 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili had one turn left in his final Olympic training run Friday. Flirting with 90 mph on a $100 million track pushing speed to the outer limits, the luger from the republic of Georgia tilted his head slightly forward as his sled climbed the high-banked wall.

His last move.

Kumaritashvili lost control, crashing into the wall entering the final straightaway. His body went airborne, arms and legs flailing over the opposite side of the track, his upper body smashing into an unpadded steel pole as his sled continued skidding down the track. It took 48.9 seconds, start to crash.

Paramedics began working on Kumaritashvili within seconds, quickly starting chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, all to no avail.

The International Olympic Committee said Kumaritashvili was pronounced dead at a trauma center in Whistler.

"Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, clearly shaken. "He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games.

"I have no words to say what we feel."

It was the first time since 1992 in Albertville, France, that a Winter Olympian had died in training, and the fourth time in Winter Games history. A death also occurred at the last Games hosted by Canada; in 1988 in Calgary, an Austrian team doctor fell under a snow machine.

Within an hour of the accident, an investigation was opened. Security officials closed access to the crash area and the remainder of the track for the rest of the day, and all further training runs scheduled for Friday were canceled.

Women's lugers were scheduled to train at the track this morning, nine hours before the men's two-day competition was set to begin.

"It is a nervous situation," Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said.

In an inherently dangerous sport — one that sends supine athletes on sleds down a twisting, ice-packed track — Whistler's track is known as the fastest in the world. And the danger of the track has been talked about for months, particularly after several countries, including the United States, were upset with restrictions over access to the facility by nations other than Canada, some noting it could lead to a safety issue.

Some sliders, especially those from small luge federations, saw the world's fastest track this week for the first time. U.S. world champion bobsledder Steven Holcomb — bobsledders also race on the track — unleashed his frustration, blaming the lack of access for the tragedy.

"The track is difficult as it is, the speeds are higher than any other track in the world, and there's nowhere to train for that," Holcomb said. "And while they're letting Canadians on to train as much as they want, you have smaller nations that have never been down before. It's kind of unfair, and now it's a tragedy. This could have been avoided."

Crashes had already marred the days leading up to competition. Earlier Friday, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler came off his sled and had to hold it with his left arm just to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away. Thursday, a female Romanian luger was knocked unconscious after slamming into several walls during a training run.

"I pray a little in turns 11 and 12 and then breathe again after 13," said American bobsledder Michelle Rzepka at a news conference Thursday, referring to the lower section of the track where Kumaritashvili crashed.

Turn 13 is so difficult that it has become known as "the 50-50," with athletes giving themselves a 50 percent chance of making it through without crashing.

Australian Hannah Campbell-Pegg went so far as to wonder aloud, a day before the fatal crash, whether lugers were being made into "crash-test dummies" thrown down the course.

Kumaritashvili's crash was his second during training; his first was Wednesday night. Ranked 44th in the world standings this year, he also failed to finish his second of six practice runs Friday. In the runs he did finish, his average speed was about 88 mph, significantly less than the speed the top sliders are managing on this course.


Winter Olympic athlete deaths

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili is the fourth athlete in Winter Games history who has died during training at the Olympics. The other three:

Ross Milne, Australian downhill skier. Struck a tree during a training run in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria.

Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, British luger. Crashed during training in Innsbruck in 1964.

Nicholas Bochatay, Swiss speed skier. Crashed into a snow-grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport at the 1992 Albertville Games.

-— No athlete has died during competition.

Luger's death after crash mars opening of Winter Olympics in Vancouver 02/12/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 13, 2010 12:19am]
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