The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in training at the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games highlights the many dangers of a sport practised by only the most fearless competitors. Kumaritashvili flew off the track and smashed into a metal column, leaving him unconscious, bleeding from the face and needing on-site resuscitation that ultimately failed.
There have been several other casualties on the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre widely regarded as being one of the most difficult on the circuit.
There was a scare for men’s reigning double gold medallist Armin Zoeggler of Italy, who crashed and later described the course as having “character and very fast”.
On Wednesday, there were several crashes during women’s training runs, notably Romania’s Violeta Stramaturaru, who was knocked unconscious and taken to the hospital.
Luge and skeleton competitors both lie on a rectangular fibreglass sled – supine (feet first) for luge and head first for skeleton. Skeleton involves one racer but luge, which made its Olympic debut at the Innsbruck Games in 1964, can be one or two.
With groomed runs, luge has become increasingly fast and the aerodynamic sleds themselves have no brakes as the course is supposed to guide the competitors down at speeds of up to 140 kilometres per hour or more. Racers rock back and for in a bid to burst out of the start and on pulling away they use spiked gloves on the ice surface for extra acceleration before they lie down on their backs with their feet stretched out in front of them.
Luge racers steer using slight shifts of their legs and shoulders, and brake by putting their feet down and pulling up on the sled’s two runner blades. There are two individual or ‘singles’ luge events in the Olympic Games, one for men and one for women, and one two-person or ‘doubles’ event. Earlier in the week, other luge competitors admitted the course at the Whistler Sliding Centre was one of the most challenging.
US luger Tony Benshoof, who was fourth at the Torino 2006 Olympic Games, said lugers were close to reaching a speed ceiling. “The tracks are getting faster and faster. It’s getting pretty crazy. There’s that word (dangerous), it’s like that word ‘fear’,” said Benshoof. It’s getting down to that. 100mph is pretty quick. I don’t know how much faster we can go. Because of the physics of the curves….there’s a really small margin for error. The speeds are very high. (Whistler) is very challenging. From the top down, you have your hands full. There are a lot of tricky corners.”
And he also spoke of the dangers to less-experienced athletes in the sport. “They just don’t have the experience, they don’t have the coaching, sometimes they don’t have the sleds. But at the end of the day, we’re all going out there and doing it.” His teammate Chris Mazdzer said: “(The) big difference with this track (is that) you are travelling really fast from curve one. Around curve two you are going 60mph.”
Canadian luge coach Wolfgang Staudinger said: “Whistler is the fastest. It’s technical, but it is drivable. It is challenging, but that makes the sport more interesting.”