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Page last updated at 14:25 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 15:25 UK

Luge tragedy scrutinised

Nodar Kumaritashvili
At 21 years old, Kumaritashvili was among the less experienced athletes

By Rebecca Kesby

It was the most traumatic start to the Vancouver Olympics; just hours before the opening ceremony a young luger from Georgia was killed on the sliding track at Whistler. It was a shocking and highly unusual event.

Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed coming out of the final bend on his last training run before the competition. He was thrown from the track at more than 100 kmph.

Fellow athletes and spectators gasped in horror as his body slammed into a steel pillar beside the track. The first medical worker reached him within seconds, but it was already too late.

I've known that track since 2008 and it was clear that it was going to be very fast and that it would also be seriously dangerous

German bobsleigh legend Andre Lange

The tragic death stunned Vancouver and the watching world. Olympic organisers appeared before journalists, ashen-faced and tearful.

Kumaritashvili's team-mates received a standing ovation when they appeared at the opening ceremony, wearing black armbands and dignified yet emotional expressions.

Authorities at the Whistler sliding track concluded that the athlete's own mistake was the main reason for his accident. The International Luge Federation (FIL) said there was "no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track".

Organisers hastily erected a wooden barrier at the crash site and made changes to the ice to slow down the track. The start point for luge was also moved lower down the track in an effort to keep speeds down.

These changes were made for the "emotional wellbeing" of the athletes, according to organisers.

Those conclusions horrified and angered some of Kumaritashvili's fellow athletes, including luge and skeleton athlete Patrick Singleton, who described the announcement as "disgusting to most luge athletes".

Georgian team at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony
The Georgian squad remembered their team-mate at the opening ceremony

All sliding tracks are required to go through a process of testing before they can be used in international competition.

Top athletes were invited to Whistler in March 2008 to try out the run and make suggestions to organisers.

During a special investigation for Newshour on the BBC World Service, we have spoken to several of those test athletes - from all three disciplines - and they all said they had concerns about Whistler, and that not enough was done to make the track safer.

One of them is American luger Tony Benshoof who told us, "You can have speed and you can have difficulty but when you have them both together the human body just can't react fast enough. And when you put those two together - that is a recipe for disaster and I think this track really exemplified that. The track definitely needed to be made safer."

Another, German bobsleigh legend Andre Lange, told us he had informed the authorities during the testing process that alterations needed to be made to make the track safer.

"I told them our opinion and they only listened to part of it, not all of it; I don't know why they didn't listen," he said.

I remember Andre saying that he had reservations about the 11, 12, 13 combination because he was feeling it when he was driving it - I think his words were that he was approaching his limit

Great Britain's Kristan Bromley

"I've known that track since 2008 and it was clear that it was going to be very fast and that it would also be seriously dangerous.

"Obviously no-one wanted or could have predicted the tragic accident, but it was certainly a pretty peculiar feeling standing at the top of that track knowing that you were about to go down it."

Britain's former skeleton world champion Kristan Bromley was also involved in the testing and told Newshour: "I remember Andre saying that he had reservations about the 11, 12, 13 combination because he was feeling it when he was driving it.

"I think his words were that he was approaching his limit. It was a fast course and the combination of speed and technical sections could catch the less experienced athletes out."

In the course of this investigation we have repeatedly requested an interview with the Vancouver Organising Committee (Vanoc) but they have declined to comment. We also invited the FIL to take part but they told us: "We respect athletes' opinions but we won't comment on them".

We did manage to speak to the vice president of the International Bobsleigh Federation (FIBT), Paul Pruszynski.

He told us he was not at the post-testing meeting where these comments were made by the test athletes, but he said some changes were made, specifically to the ice.

He said the FIBT had spent "a lot of time to make sure that we make these sports as safe as we possibly can" for competitors and that safety was "absolutely paramount" to his organisation.

FIL is releasing its official enquiry into the death of Kumaritashvili on Monday. They are already on record as saying that they want the sliding track at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to be slower.

You can hear Rebecca Kesby's special investigation for Newshour on BBC World Service at 2100 BST (2000 GMT) on Friday 16 April.



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see also
Luger expressed fears over track
16 Feb 10 |  Luge
German Loch wins luge gold medal
15 Feb 10 |  Luge
Officials respond to luge tragedy
13 Feb 10 |  Luge
Olympic luger dies after crashing
13 Feb 10 |  Luge
Event guide: Luge
10 Jan 06 |  Luge


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