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Death of Georgian luge athlete touches all

FIL representatives in uncharted waters after death of Nodar Kumaritashvili but say Whistler track is safe

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By Andrew Mitchell and Alison Taylor

As Whistler's patios began to fill Friday evening and crowds gathered in the village squares for a live broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremonies, one man was on everyone's mind - Nodar Kumaritashvili.

The young Georgian luge athlete died after a horrific crash on the Whistler Sliding Centre track Friday morning during the final training session.

He was 21 years old.

By Friday evening candles, flowers and tributes to Kumaritashvili had been placed at the base of the Olympic rings in Whistler Village. Many people stopped to quietly reflect on the day.

Alex Bryson, who works with the logistics team at the Whistler athletes' village, had checked in the small Georgian team's luggage two day earlier.

"I don't know if I met him or not," said Bryson in Village Square. "It's quite a small team so I may well have done."

Bryson is in Whistler for the season and said the news of Kumaritashvili's death rippled quickly among his friends, particularly those working for the Olympics. It was met with shock and sadness.

"He's 21, I'm 22. He's younger than me, his first Olympics...

"It's a strange one because everyone's excited for the Olympics, they're about to start but at the same time something like this happens. It's a really strange sort of balance."

Also walking through the village Friday afternoon was Paul Kristofic, the manager of the Canadian men's alpine ski team.

"It's shocking," he said. "You don't expect to see something like that ever in that sport. It's a fast sport and I've never actually seen a big accident like that in luge.

"I think the athletes who are close to luge or part of luge are probably feeling it the most, that one of their colleagues has been killed and I think that's awful for them."

The accident was attributed to driver error within 24 hours, but the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre almost immediately faced criticism. Several athletes and officials said they were concerned about the speeds and the safety of the track.

At an emotional Saturday morning press conference in Whistler the president and secretary general of the International Luge Federation (FIL) discussed the events leading to Kumaritashvili's death.

President Josef Fendt, speaking through a translator, called Feb. 12 the "worst day, one of the saddest days in the sport... and that was the worst event that has ever happened," in its almost 60 years in the Winter Games.

Fendt expressed his personal condolences, and then, citing his limitations in English, turned the floor over to secretary general Svein Romstad to discuss the details of Kumaritashvili's death. Romstad, visibly shaken, choked up several times speaking to the media, but explained what had transpired since the accident.

He started off by apologizing for the lack of information at a press conference the previous day, as the FIL's own team were not allowed to investigate the site until the RCMP completed their investigation. The RCMP then handed over the results of their investigation to the FIL and IOC.

"Our tech officials studied the tape, they walked the track and retraced the event and based on this they were able to render their opinion as to what happened," said Romstad.

"The run of Nodar appeared to be routine until Curve 15. At that point he came out late from the exit of the curve, which resulted in a late entrance into the last curve, Curve 16, the finish curve. Although he tried to correct the situation he shot into the roof of Turn 16, with the result that he experienced G (gravitational) forces that collapsed his body and rendered it difficult to control the sled, and in this case he was not able to do so. Once this happened he was literally at the mercy of the path of the sled.

"At the exit of Curve 16 he hit the wall, which resulted in Nodar being catapulted over the top of the wall, resulting in the final crash."

Kumaritashvili hit one of a series of metal posts that line the final straight section of the Whistler Sliding Centre track.

While some early media reports suggested that Kumaritashvili might have been inexperienced - he did not take part in the Nations Cup or World Cup events in Whistler last year - the Republic of Georgia held a press conference to clarify. Kumaritashvili had 26 runs on the Whistler track before the fatal run and participated in all five World Cup events this season. He was ranked 44th on the circuit.

It was the first fatality in the sport since 1975, when an Italian luger was killed in World Cup competition.

"As such I hope you can appreciate our unfamiliarity in dealing with a tragic event like this," said Romstad.

As a result of the accident, the FIL made the decision to move the start of the men's event down to the women's or junior start. Training runs were held Saturday morning and the first luge competition was held Saturday and Sunday.

The FIBT, which sanctions bobsleigh and skeleton events, has not made any decision about lowering the starts.

Track crews worked through the night Friday and Saturday morning to reshape the track and build up the wall on the exit of curve 16. Panels were in place Saturday to keep athletes in the track in the event of a crash and away from the posts that Kumaritashvili hit.

While the FIL admitted that this decision was partially a precautionary measure, they maintained that the course was safe. However, they were concerned about the psychological impact on the other athletes.

"The bottom line is the decision was made to deal with the emotional component for the athletes to alleviate as best as possible the circumstances of this tragic event," said Romstad.

Tim Gayda, the vice president of sport for the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) said it was the toughest day in his career of sport event management.

He explained how the track was developed in co-operation with the FIL and FIBT and the systems that were put into place to ensure that athletes had proper training to become familiar with what is the fastest track on the circuit. Athletes were clocked at 154 km/h during training, surpassing the track record set the previous year during the World Cup.

According to Gayda athletes have made roughly 5,000 runs on the track and it has received good reviews from athletes and officials.

Romstad said team captains were consulted when making the decision to use the lower start on the track, with FIL making the final decision.

Fendt admitted that he had previously expressed concerns about the track design for Sochi in 2014, which was expected to be even faster than Whistler's track. However, he said they never considered the Whistler Sliding Centre to be too dangerous even at the speeds that were recorded in training.

As for the suggestion that more athletes were crashing in Whistler, Romstad said that nothing was statistically different than other tracks on the World Cup circuit.

"This is a fast sport and athletes do encounter problems on a regular basis," he said. "There was nothing out of the ordinary yesterday. Yes, there were some troubles, but what I'm being told is that there's nothing out of the ordinary. It's important to remember that this track is operational for over two years, and 5,000 plus runs, and to look at the overall - for lack of a better word - crash ratio, it's on par with other tracks. So really there were no signals that it was unique."

A private memorial service for Kumaritashvili was held in Vancouver Monday. VANOC chief executive officer John Furlong attended the service. Kumaritashvili's body arrived home in Georgia Tuesday.