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Luger’s tragic death at Vancouver Olympics serves as a lesson learned for Sochi

Nodar Kumaritashvili's tragic death impacts Sochi luge event.
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The tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Vancouver Olympics tolls a solemn bell at the start of the Sochi Olympics.

As the men’s luge practice runs began Friday in Sochi, many returning Olympians are sure to remember this horrific incident – forever etched within their psyche.

Four years ago, on the eve of the Olympic Games, the rising 21-year-old from Georgia careened out of the final hairpin turn at the dangerous Whistler track during a practice run. Ejected from his sled, he flew off the course and into an unprotected, tall metal post. Medics rushed to the scene, only to find his motionless body crumbled at the base. Despite valiant attempts to resuscitate him, he was transported to the emergency medical clinic where he was pronounced dead of blunt force injuries to the head, just one hour later.

IOC President Jacques Rogge, who paid respect to Kumaritashvili in the Opening Ceremonies, later stated in a final IOC Report issued on the Vancouver Olympics, “Of course my memories of the Vancouver Games will always be tainted by the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, and the violent end to his tragic dream. Everything must be done to avoid a repetition of such a dramatic accident.”

The British Columbia Coroner’s Office soon conducted its investigation by studying: past track design drawings, speed test results, track planning correspondence among the above organizations, and even the young Kumaritashvili’s own readiness to compete.

Within this sterile, matter-of-fact Coroner’s Report, it described his last moments: “The collision was a result of an interaction of factors including high speed, technical challenges and exacting physical forces with the associated physiological stresses, which converged at a critical moment, overwhelming the athlete and causing the irretrievable loss of control of the sled.”

While cautious not to point blame in its official report released on September 16, 2010, the coroner recommended that precautions be taken at future world class events:

  • “It is recommended that current practices for… track design and construction consider incorporating additional measures [such as] independent, safety-oriented audits of track design and construction, and the placement and configuration of crash barriers and other safety features.”
  • “It is recommended that the FIL require more compulsory, venue-specific training immediately before major competitions such as the Olympic Games for less experienced, less trained or less skilled athletes.”’

In sum, it concluded, “However, as much as the athletes accept that risk exists in their sport, the organizers, regulatory bodies and venue owners must ensure that no effort is spared to anticipate the unforeseeable as far as safety is concerned, and do everything possible to mitigate the risk.”

Since this report’s release, lessons have been learned – by the IOC, International Luge Federation, the Sochi Organizing Committee, and even the daredevil athletes themselves who recognize that they don’ t need to chase speed to succeed.

Sometimes it takes a death to jar these organizations to their senses. Courses were soon changed while specially considering the vulnerability of inexperienced athletes.

For the Sochi Olympics, construction of the Sanki Sliding Center track began in 2010. And right from the start, this 1800 meter course was built with safety in mind such that average speed maxes out at 85mph, compared to Vancouver’s 95mph. Further, these builders added three uphill gradients designed to control speed, the only track of its kind with these ultra-safe features.

"I like the track a lot...I think it's unlikely that there will be a lot of falls," said Russia’s Luge Coach Valery Silakovin a RIA Novosti article.

Further, these international officials offered many opportunities for the lugers to get used to this unique course. Through participation in practice sessions, test events and a FIL World Cup competition during the last two years, hundreds of athletes have trekked to this Rosa Khutor venue at least three times to race down this course in dozens of runs.

Germany’s Andi Langenhan, among the world’s elite, said, “In general, the track is great, it’s not that fast but safe."

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