Officials make changes to Olympic luge track but deny it was too fast

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WHISTLER, B.C. - Canadian luge coach Wolfgang Staudinger says driver error, not the course, led to the death of a 21-year-old slider from Georgia in a training run crash at the Vancouver Olympics.

Staudinger also spoke out about changes made to the Whistler Sliding Centre course in the wake of the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

"It was not a track issue. It was a driver error - 100 per cent," the coach said Saturday "There must have been a huge driving error."

The Canadian coach also admonished the push to get more "exotic" athletes into the Games.

"It's serious business," Staudinger said of the luge. "It's not just like sliding on a kids hill on a Krazy Karpet."

But Svein Romstad, secretary-general of the International Luge Federation (FIL), called the young Georgian a "good athlete," with 26 runs on the Whistler track.

"This is a large number of runs for an athlete of his character," he told an earlier news conference.

The young Georgian had competed in five World Cup events this season, ranking 44th.

Luge officials opted to have the starts of all Olympic luge competitions moved farther down the track than originally planned in the wake of the death.

All four men's runs will begin from the women's start ramp. The women's and doubles entrants in the Olympic field will start even lower - at the junior start position.

Bobsled and skeleton, which use the same track, do not plan to change their starting positions.

Kumaritashvili was travelling at nearly 145 km/h when he flew off his sled and was hurled into an unpadded steel support pole during Friday's training session. On Saturday, large orange rectangular pads of foam were taped to the pillars.

The changes to the start means speeds in all luge events will be a bit lower.

Staudinger wanted the men's start line left where it was.

"We all were ready to race from the top," said the coach, adding at a team meeting Friday afternoon he didn't see any Canadian racers who were "particularly shaken up."

The new configuration will negate Canada's experience advantage on the track and make the men's competition exceptionally close, he complained.

"It's changing the entire thing," he said. The track "is absolutely safe. The track was safe before."

Other racers also expressed frustration Saturday with the ladies' start line, which they said is too flat.

"It's too slow," said Austrian Manuel Pfister, saying the different start made for a "completely different" track from Friday's training runs.

Takahlsa Oguchi of Japan also wasn't happy with the change. "This track is difficult but it's not so dangerous," he said.

But Canadian slider Jeff Christie said the lower start "takes off a lot of the stress."

Christie said the death of a fellow slider "eats you inside" and served as a "constant reminder of the risks you take." But he acknowledged that everyone processes grief in different ways. While some competitors appear deeply affected, "some guys up there are giggling."

Canadian teammate Ian Cockerline said he was in disbelief when he heard the Georgian had died.

"Honestly, I thought it must be a mistake," he said. "I don't think of this as a dangerous track. I look at some of the other tracks around the world and I think, 'That's the place you could get hurt."'

Cockerline has crashed before on Turn 16 and says it's not a pleasant experience, but "the thought of leaving the track never, ever entered my mind."

As training resumed Saturday, the sliders wore black tape on the left side of their helmets to remember Kumaritashvili.

The second Georgian luger passed on both his training runs and therefore likely will not be permitted to race under the rules. Levan Gureshidze was seen at the sliding centre wearing a black armband.

Officials defended the Olympic luge track earlier Saturday, saying they went through a long and safe process in preparing it for the Vancouver Games.

Tim Gayda, VANOC's vice-president of sport, acknowledged it's a fast course, but said measures were taken to make sure athletes were confident about racing on it.

"It is one of the fastest tracks but we never said that it is too fast," FIL president Josef Fendt said through an interpreter.

Romstad said the entire luge world was in mourning.

"They lost a friend yesterday, it is emotional for everybody," he said, struggling to control his emotions.

Gayda said the track had lived up to - and surpassed - its obligations to make the course available to foreign athletes.

"We're quite confident in the number of runs we did provide all the teams," he said.

Romstad noted the track had been open more than two years with some 5,000 runs and that "for lack of a better word" crash ratio "is on par with other tracks."

Romstad said the Georgian lost control coming out of a turn and the G-force "literally collapsed his body, rendering it difficult to control the sled.

"Once this happened, he was literally at the mercy of the path of the sled."

"For me personally and for the International Luge Federation, yesterday was the worst day, it was the saddest day...," said Fendt. "We have been competing since '64, so almost 50 years and it was the worst event that happened."

Fendt said the last fatality on an artificial track was Dec. 10, 1975 when an Italian luger died.

Organizations: International Luge Federation, FIL, Vancouver Olympics Whistler Sliding Centre

Geographic location: WHISTLER, Georgia, Canada Japan

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