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Olympic luger from Georgia dies after crash

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) - It took only three seconds.
Sliding faster than ever in his life, 21-year-old Nodar
Kumaritashvili had one turn left in his final Olympic training run.
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 all took just 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 IOC said Kumaritashvili was pronounced dead at a trauma
center in Whistler.
Less than an hour after the accident, a representative from each
team was told the grim news.
With that, tears began flowing across the close-knit sliding
world and throughout the Olympic family.
"I have no words," a teary International Olympic Committee
president Jacques Rogge said, "to say what we feel."
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 luge Olympians are scheduled to train at the track
Saturday morning, nine hours before the men's two-day competition
is set to begin.
"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."
The danger of the Whistler track has been talked about for
months - particularly after several countries, including the U.S.,
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.
Nikolos Rurua, the Georgian minister of culture and sport, said
Kumaritashvili had been on the Whistler surface before, and it
would be unfair to say that the slider was ill-prepared for the
test of the demanding track.
"When you are going that fast it just takes one slip and you
can have that big mistake," U.S. doubles luger Christian Niccum
said Thursday, when asked about track safety. "All of us are very
calm going down, but it you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick
reactions, that sled will steer. That's the difference between luge
and bobsled and skeleton, we're riding on a very sharp edge and
that sled will go exactly where we tell it to so you better be
telling it the right things on the way down."
The luge federation had several options, including delaying
competition, trying to re-shape the ice to make some curves less
severe, having men's sliders start from the women's ramp - which
would keep speed a bit more in check - or simply going forward as
scheduled.
Officials in Vancouver and Whistler both stressed that no
decisions regarding what happens next would be made before the
initial investigations are complete.
"It's not nice, but I hope they will make the track as safe as
possible," said bobsledder Timothy Beck from the Netherlands.
"These accidents should not happen," Swiss figure skater Sarah
Meier said.
"This is dangerous," German bobsled star Andre Lange said.
"You should never forget that."
Rogge said he was in contact with Kumaritashvili's family - the
slider's father is president of the Georgian luge federation and
his cousin is the team's coach, VANOC officials said - and the
Georgian government. The remaining seven members of the Georgian
Olympic delegation said they would stay in the games and dedicated
their performances to their fallen teammate.
"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."
Under giant Olympic rings near the medals plaza in downtown
Whistler, mourners placed candles and flowers around a photograph
of Kumaritashvili, on his sled and barreling down the track. Around
the photo, an inscription read: "In Memory of Nodar
Kumaritashvili, May he rest in peace."
There was a moment of silence in memory of the luger at the
start of the Alpine skiing team captains' meeting.
Kumaritashvili is the fourth competitor to die at the Winter
Games, all in training, and the first since 1992.
Crashes happen often in luge - at least 12 sliders have wrecked
just this week on the daunting Whistler surface. Still, some who
have been around tracks their entire lives couldn't remember
someone actually being thrown over the wall.
"It's a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and
German coach Georg Hackl said, clearly shaken after seeing
Kumaritashvili tended to furiously by medical workers.
Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn't believe the
Whistler 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 than anywhere else."
VANOC officials said the investigation was taking place to
"ensure a safe field of play."
"As athletes, we know that the international federation, the
IOC and VANOC have no higher priority than ensuring our safety, on
and off the field of play," said British luger A.J. Rosen, who
dislocated his hip in a crash at the Whistler track last fall. "I
know they are looking into this and, should it be deemed necessary
for them to introduce additional measures, they will do so."
This was Kumaritashvili's second crash during training for the
games, the first coming Wednesday in the opening session. He also
failed to finish his second of six practice runs.
His last recorded speed Friday was 89.4 mph, measured near the
last curve. He was on a higher path - line, they call it in luge -
down the final turns of the track than most sliders prefer, and the
combination of speed and gravitational pull was too much for his
176-pound body to control.
Sliding diagonally, Kumaritashvili smashed into a corner
entering the final straightaway feet-first. He was knocked off his
sled and sailed in the other direction, coming to rest on a metal
walkway after his upper body smashed into the post. The first
rescue worker just happened to be nearby and was at his side within
three seconds.
"His competitive spirit and dedication to sports excellence
will be remembered and honored during the games," Canadian prime
minister Stephen Harper said.
This would have been Kumaritashvili's first Olympics. He
competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the
world standings.
Earlier in the day, two-time Olympic champion 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.
Training days in Whistler have been crash-filled. A Romanian
woman was 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.
"RIP Nodar Kumaritashvili," American skeleton athlete Kyle
Tress, who did not qualify for the Olympic team, wrote on his
Twitter feed. "Let's never forget how dangerous these sports can
be."

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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