Kumaritashvili killed in luge training

Updated: December 23, 2010, 5:31 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A men's luger from the former Soviet republic of Georgia died Friday after a high-speed crash during training for the Winter Games.

The International Olympic Committee said doctors were unable to revive Nodar Kumaritashvili, and the 21-year-old died at a hospital, hours before the Vancouver Olympics' opening ceremonies were to start.

IOC president Jacques Rogge said the death "clearly casts a shadow over these Games."

"The IOC is in deep mourning,'' said Rogge, who wiped his eyes and appeared choked up before speaking. "[Kumaritashvili] lost his life pursuing his passion. I have no words to say what we feel.''

Officials from the International Luge Federation and the Vancouver 2010 organizing committee said late Friday their investigation found "no indication the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track." They said the track would reopen Saturday morning with changes "to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again."

Women's luge Olympians were scheduled to train at the track Saturday morning, nine hours before the men's two-day competition is set to begin.

The remaining seven members of the Georgian Olympic delegation planned to compete despite the tragedy and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate. The athletes "decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games," Nikolos Rurua, Georgia's minister of culture and sport, said.

Kumaritashvili's teammates marched somberly into BC Place Stadium for the opening ceremonies. They wore black armbands and scarves, behind a flag draped with a black ribbon, as spectators, Olympic officials and competitors stood and saluted them with applause. Later, there was a moment of silence for Kumaritashvili.

"When we get here, we're all part of the same family. It's definitely affected everyone here," U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White said.

Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled, went over the track wall and struck an unpadded steel pole near the finish line at Whistler Sliding Center.

Rescue workers were at Kumaritashvili's side within seconds, chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation started less than one minute after the crash, and he was quickly airlifted to a trauma center in Whistler.

[+] EnlargeNodar Kumaritashvili
Peter Parks/AFP/Getty ImagesNodar Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled Friday, went over a track wall and struck a steel pole near the finish line at Whistler Sliding Center.

The IOC said Kumaritashvili was pronounced dead at a trauma center in Whistler.

Vancouver organizing chief John Furlong said, "We are heartbroken beyond words."

Rogge said he spoke with the president of Georgia to express his sympathy.

Less than an hour after the accident, a representative from each team was told the grim news.

Kumaritashvili became the fourth Winter Olympics athlete to die since the Winter Games began in 1924 and the first since 1992.

"USA Luge expresses its deepest sympathies to the family of Nodar Kumaritashvili, his teammates and coaches as well as the entire delegation from Georgia," USA Luge president Dwight Bell and CEO Ron Rossi said in a statement. "He will remain in our prayers."

The first sign Kumaritashvili was truly in trouble came only three seconds before the crash on Curve 13, the most perilous turn. His speed of 89.4 mph -- his best during six training runs on this track -- almost certainly means he had never gone faster.

Kumaritashvili's line -- as the path is known in luge -- entering the next-to-last curve had him traveling along a higher route than most racers prefer. That's where it got especially dangerous. His 176-pound body was no match for the gravitational forces along that sweeping turn. That, plus the high rate of speed, sent him careening up the high, banked, ice-covered wall.

Sliding diagonally down the wall, Kumaritashvili hit the corner entering the final straightaway with his lower body. The impact knocked him off the sled and flying across the track, his arms and legs flailing.

After smashing into the pole, he was motionless on a metal walkway. His left leg was in the air and his left foot was propped atop the track wall when the first rescue worker arrived and placed both hands on his helmet.

"It's a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said before news of Kumaritashvili's death broke, clearly shaken moments after seeing Kumaritashvili tended to furiously by medical officials.

Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn't believe the track was unsafe.


"People have the opinion it is dangerous but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe," he said. "My opinion is that it's not any more dangerous that anywhere else."

It was Kumaritashvili's second crash during training for the Vancouver Games. He also failed to finish his second of six practice runs, and 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 lightning-fast course.

"My thoughts and prayers are with the Georgian Olympic team," U.S. bobsled pilot Steven Holcomb said on Twitter. "The sliding community suffered a tragic and devastating loss to our family today."

"RIP Nodar Kumaritashvili," wrote American skeleton athlete Kyle Tress, who did not qualify for the Olympic team. "Let's never forget how dangerous these sports can be."

More than a dozen athletes have crashed during Olympic training for luge, and some questioned whether athletes from smaller nations -- like Georgia -- had enough time to prepare for the daunting track.

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 track, generally considered the fastest sliding track in the world.

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 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, however, the Canadians will undoubtedly face criticism that with a track of such speed, athletes should have been given more practice time to become familiar with it.

At the finish area, not far from where Kumaritashvili lost control, athletes, coaches and officials solemnly awaited word on Kumaritashvili before eventually being ushered away. Access to the crash area was closed within about 30 minutes.

"I've never seen anything like that," said Shiva Keshavan, a four-time Olympian from India.

The remainder of men's training was canceled for the day, with VANOC officials saying in a release that an investigation was taking place to "ensure a safe field of play."

"It is a nervous situation," Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said. "It's a big tragedy for all [of] luge. I hope, we all hope, it's the first accident and the last accident in this race."

There was speculation that having the men's sliders start from the women's ramp -- which would shorten the course and possibly keep speed a bit more in check -- was among the options being considered.

[+] EnlargeNodar Kumaritashvili
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaKumaritashvili, preparing for his first training run Friday, became the fourth Olympian to die during a Winter Games but the first since 1992.

Kumaritashvili competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.

Five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette, chosen as the U.S. team's flag bearer, said the speeds on the track are pushing the boundaries of safety.

"We're probably getting close," he said Thursday. "This track is fast and you definitely have to be on your game. ... So it's definitely something they are going to have to take into account on future tracks."

Earlier in the day, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled on Curve 11. Zoeggeler came off his sled and held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.

"I think they are pushing it a little too much," Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg said Thursday night after she nearly lost control in training. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."

A Romanian woman was briefly knocked unconscious and at least four Americans -- Chris Mazdzer on Wednesday, Megan Sweeney on Thursday and both Tony Benshoof and Bengt Walden on Friday in the same training session where Zoeggeler wrecked -- have had serious trouble just getting down the track.

"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."

American luger Christian Niccum crashed during a World Cup event in Whistler last year.

"When I hit that ice going 90 mph it turns into fire," Niccum said Thursday. "I remember coming around to the finish and I just wanted to rip off my suit, 'I'm on fire. I'm on fire.' "

Information from The Associated Press, ESPN.com senior writer Howard Bryant and ESPN.com's Bonnie D. Ford was used in this report.