- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- For weeks leading up to the Olympics, a major concern for bobsledders, lugers and skeleton riders beyond their competition has been the formidable reputation of the Whistler track, generally considered the fastest sliding track in the world.
Hours before the opening ceremonies Friday, athletes' concerns over the track were brought into the spotlight when 21-year-old luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of the former Soviet republic of Georgia died after a crash during training.
Television replays here at the Main Press Center showed Kumaritashvili skidding over the ice and colliding with an unpadded support pole as he negotiated a curve. (Luge sliders can generate speeds up to 90 miles per hour.)
Bobsledder Steven Holcomb, driver of USA I, nicknamed the course's 13th curve the "50-50" curve because of the odds of a crash.
The fatal crash places the politics of the track in a decidedly different light. Earlier in the winter, the American team complained of the tight restrictions the Canadian team placed on use of the Whistler track, which was seen as an example of simple gamesmanship. The Canadians are expected to do well during the Games and are thought to have limited access to the track to preserve a competitive advantage.
During precompetition interviews Thursday, sliding athletes discussed the difficulties and challenges of navigating the speed of the Whistler track. Generally, the athletes agreed the track was even more dangerous for bobsledders due to the significantly heavier weight of the sled.
Erin Pac, the driver of the second U.S. women's bobsled team sled, crashed on the Whistler track last year.
In light of Kumaritashvili's death, the Canadians undoubtedly will face criticism that with a track of such speed, athletes should have been given more practice time to become familiar with it.
Television replays showed the fatal crash occurring near the end of the track, which many athletes said was the fastest, most difficult part of the run.
"Skeleton racers may be able to 'starfish' and kind of correct themselves because they can put their feet down," U.S. women's bobsled driver Shauna Rohbock said Thursday. "Luge, I would think it would be kind of dangerous for them, and for bobsled, yes, we have round runners on our sleds, and once you try to make a change, it doesn't react instantly, so I think it is the most dangerous of all because of the weight.
"The top of this track is pretty technical, and just from the World Cup last year, watching the sleds come down and watching people make mistakes at the bottom, I noticed that even if you make a mistake down there, it doesn't take time away because everybody is going so fast," Rohbock said. "Everybody is going very, very fast at the bottom."
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.
4dScott Burnside and Craig Custance