Other Sports

Lugers unhappy with changes made to slow Whistler run

Felix Loch of Germany celebrates his gold medal finish during the final run of the men's singles luge competition. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Felix Loch of Germany celebrates his gold medal finish during the final run of the men's singles luge competition. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

WHISTLER, British Columbia — No one wanted another visit from the coroner at the Olympics. So luge officials did what they had to do. They slowed down the fastest sport on ice.

They had to weigh the safety of the sport vs. the integrity of it.

Their choice? They had none. Not after Nodar Kumaritashvili's awful accident. Not after a death at the track. Not after video of the 21-year-old from the Republic of Georgia coming high off the final curve, losing control of his sled, flying off the track at 89 mph and slamming into a steel post was played and replayed on TV and the Internet.

Responsibility and caution superseded competition. The essence of the sport was compromised.

But lugers admit to conflicting feelings about the changes: grief for Kumaritashvili, his family and his teammates; apprehension of what lay ahead for them on the track known for its world-record speed of 98 mph; anger that they could not race at the highest levels of their sport after years of training, sacrifice and honing that fine line between disaster and perfection.

Many believe the changes will have a real impact on the outcome of the competition.

For two-time gold medalist and five-time luge world champion Armin Zoeggeler, the Roger Federer of his sport, it was like adding brakes to the sleds.

"We've been training from the top and moving the start was unnecessary,'' Argentina's Ruben Gonzalez said. "The flatter start hurts a great driver like Armin and helps the Germans, who have incredible starts. It changes the tactics of the event.''

Said Austria's Manuel Pfister, one of the favorites, after competing on the course Saturday: "It was slow, completely different. Until [Friday,] I was in the medal ranks. [On Saturday,] it's not a race. It was maybe too easy. It's really frustrating for me. It's a pity for me.''

Officials decided to move the men's start 176 meters downhill to the ladies starting line. The ladies start was moved 245 meters to the junior start. A protective plywood wall was erected in the final bend, Curve 16, also known as the Thunderbird, where Kumaritashvili crashed.

Luge and other speed sports are all about pushing the envelope. The Whistler track, with its 439-foot drop from top to bottom, its 5 Gs of force in the turns (nearly what an astronaut will feel in a space shuttle launch), was the ideal place to do it. By moving the start, the steep drop from Curve 1 to 2 was eliminated, as was the quick acceleration. Speeds were slowed about 5 to 7 mph.

By lessening the danger, officials also evened the playing field. Top athletes felt cheated. It was like telling PGA Tour golfers to hit from the ladies tees.

Ron Rossi, chief of USA Luge, was frustrated.

The women's course was reduced to a practice course, he said.

American Erin Hamlin was upset about the portrayal of her sport as perilous.

"What I want people to know about luge is that it's not that scary,'' she said. "People need to realize that we're still here, we're still racing on this track, and when they dwell on the tragedy and they keep showing the coverage they're making it harder for us.''

Canada's home-course advantage was neutralized, said Canada coach Wolfgang Staudinger. He dismissed the notion that athletes from other countries didn't get enough training runs here, pointing out that lugers got about 40 runs as opposed to 15 four years ago in Italy.

Kumaritashvili's accident was caused by a severe miscalculation on the sled, Staudinger said.

"Hundred percent, that was not a track issue,'' he said. "It was a driving error.''

Yet worse for luge, and the 2010 Games, would be another tragedy, or even injury. Officials had a duty to take preventative measures.

Luge faces the same hard questions confronting other sports as athletes become more powerful and equipment becomes more sophisticated. Football is examining its concussion problem.

Skiing is addressing its injury epidemic. Luge keeps getting faster. One outcome of Kumaritashvili's death is more discussion about the design of future tracks so that speeds top out at 87 mph.

Lugers wore black tape on their helmets or gloves in honor of Kumaritashvili. All believed he would have wanted the races to continue. Like them, he embraced the risks of his sport.

Gonzalez met Kumaritashvili two years ago during training in Latvia, and the 19-year-old helped the 45-year-old by giving him tips.

"He was the kind of kid I'd want my kids to grow up to be,'' Gonzalez said. "When I saw him flying off the track I couldn't believe it. None of us had ever seen that before in luge.''

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune