Olympic officials heartbroken after Georgian luger dies in crash on eve of Games

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WHISTLER, B.C. - Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrific crash during an Olympic training run Friday on the eve of the Vancouver Games' opening ceremonies, flying off a high-speed track that has wasted little time showing its teeth.
The 21-year-old lost control of his sled on the final turn, went over the track wall and rocketed into a support pole near the finish line at the Whistler Sliding Centre. He subsequently died in hospital.
The shocking crash cast a pall on the Games, which had been gearing up for a worldwide opening ceremony celebration to be beamed live from B.C. Place. Instead top officials found themselves offering condolences at a Vancouver news conference.
"Sorry, it's a bit difficult to remain composed. This is a very sad day," said IOC president Jacques Rogge, pausing to take off his glasses and control his emotions. "The IOC's in deep mourning.
"Here you have a young athlete who's lost his life in pursuing his passion. He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident. I have no words to say what we feel," he told a packed news conference that lasted less than seven minutes at Vancouver's Main Press Centre.
"We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here," said VANOC CEO John Furlong, also struggling to hold back his emotions.
The crash prompted questions about the speed of the Whistler course. But there were no immediate answers.
An investigation on the fatal crash is underway. Rogge avoided questions about the speed of the track, saying he would discuss that "at a proper time."
"I'm sorry, this is a time for sorrow," said Rogge. "It is not a time for look for reasons. That will come in due time."
The news conference then ended.
The Georgian was coming around the final 270-degree turn on the lightning-fast course, where top sliders have exceeded 150 km/h in some sections, when he flipped off his sled and was hurled like a missile into one of the thick metal pillars. The stanchions support the canopy around parts of the course that helps keep the sun off and the track cool.
The slider, a blur in his black-and-blue racing suit and white helmet went high in the corner, banking left. His sled swooped out from under him, hit the inside wall and the Georgian flew through the air, turning backwards as he launched into the square pillar on the outside of the track.
There was a collective gasp on the finish dock from officials and athletes as the crash was beamed on the large-screen TVs.
The screens were immediately turned off as crews raced down the track to the stricken racer.
It's the first death at the Games since 1992 when a speed skier crashed into a snow-grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport in Albertville.
The luge competition was scheduled to begin Saturday. There was no immediate word if the men's singles event would be postponed.
A senior federal government source said the tragic death would be noted at the opening ceremonies. Flags will fly at half-mast at Games venues Saturday and for the entire Olympics at the Sliding Centre.
The Whistler track is considered the fastest in the world, designed with the guidance of Canadian officials and representatives from the international sliding sports organizations.
It was not intentionally designed to be the fastest ever, but was built to challenge the sliders, said Craig Lehto, the general manager of the centre, in a recent interview.
For some athletes, it's too fast.
Kumaritashvili, a relatively inexperienced luger, had competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.
It was Kumaritashvili's second crash during training for the Vancouver Games. He also failed to finish his second of six practice runs.
Luge is considered the most dangerous of the sliding sports. Lying on their back on a spartan sled, athletes rocket down a twisting course like a cylinder in a pneumatic tube. There is little margin for error.
Friday's training was cancelled and members of the International Luge Federation were called for a briefing with team captains from each nation also asked to attend a meeting.
"This is a terrible accident," said Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation. "This is the very gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the luge family, are naturally with those touched by this event."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said all Canadians were deeply saddened by Kumaritashvili's death.
"His competitive spirit and dedication to sports excellence will be remembered and honoured during the Games," Harper said in a statement. "On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I send our deepest sympathies to Mr. Kumaritashvili's family and friends and the entire Georgian Winter Olympic team
"We all feel the loss of this young athlete deeply," Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said in a statement.
Added B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell: "The loss of a gifted, talented young athlete training for the opening of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games is heartbreaking for people around the globe. We all want to see athletes compete hard and succeed in their chosen sports, but at the same time our paramount concern is always for their safety and health."
Medics were seen performing mouth-to-mouth on the Georgian, his helmet still on, face up on the cement beside the track and an ambulance. Track officials then ordered all bystanders away.
Medics administered CPR to a bloodied Kumaritashvili before he was lifted into the ambulance. An air-rescue helicopter arrived some eight minutes after the crash. The slider was taken to a medical facility at the athletes village south of Whistler.
Video of the crash was soon posted on YouTube - and pulled down for TV rights violation.
A CTV spokesman said the host broadcaster was airing the footage of the crash "with discretion," providing advance viewer warning because of its graphic nature. But it didn't air often.
At the finish area, not far from the crash, athletes, coaches and officials awaited word on Kumaritashvili. Then they heard the worst.
"This is the first time we've seen this. It's very sad," said Canadian luge team coach Wolfgang Staudinger, adding he planned to meet with his team to discuss what happened.
Rogge said he had spoken to both Georgian team officials and the country's president, adding that they were still considering whether the rest of their athletes would participate in the Games.
The $105-million sliding centre, on the southeast face of Blackcomb Mountain, has been billed as a wild ride and the accident happened at its fastest point.
The Whistler track is a 1,450-metre course has 16-turns and drops steeply for 152 metres. It's the longest drop of any track in the world, with an average grade of 11 per cent, including two stomach- inverting drops of 20 per cent.
More than a dozen athletes have crashed during Olympic training.
Defending Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy lost control on the lower part of the track Friday. He didn't appear to be injured. On Thursday, Romania's Violeta Stramaturaru crashed and had to be airlifted out.
"I think they are pushing it a little too much," Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg said Thursday night after she nearly lost control in training. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."
American slider Bengt Walden also crashed in training.
"You're trying to let the sled run more and that's when mistakes happen," said Walden.. "Once you think you've got it figured out and you're being calm, that's when things like this happen."
Added Walden: "I don't think they're going to build more faster tracks than this. I think the (governing body) FIL was almost unhappy with how fast the track turned out to be."
The Georgian's crash happened midway through the sixth and final training run.
The Whistler track is used by sliders in all three of the Olympic sliding sports. Bobsledders, skeleton racers and men's singles luge sliders all start from the top. Female luge sliders and the men's doubles start 252 metres lower down the course.
Luge is a century-old sport, originating in Europe and became an official Olympic sport in 1964. The sliders push off from the start handles at the top, paddle on the ice with spiked gloves to pick up speed, then lie on their backs, guiding the sleds with their legs and shoulders, keeping their heads slightly tilted up to see where they're going.
The top speeds from male lugers reach 140 km/h and higher, the fastest among the sliders and equivalent in speed only to the massive four-man bobsleds. But unlike bobsledders, lugers are precariously exposed. The only protection is a helmet and light padding under skin-tight speedsuits. With their arms tightly tucked in at their sides they cannot brace easily for impact when the sled goes out from under them, as happened with Kumaritashvili.
Kumaritashvili's death was an eerie echo of an event that marred his sport's introduction to the Olympic Games at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1964.
There had been opposition to including luge in the Games, with some arguing it put participants in too much danger. Their point was proved two weeks before the Games began when a British luger - Polish-born Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski - died in a crash during a practice run on the Olympic track.
Kay-Skrzypeski was not the only athlete to die in the lead-up to the 1964 Olympics. Ross Milne, 19, an Australian downhill skier, was killed after careering off the course and smashing into a tree during a training run.
In the 1992 Albertville Games, Swiss speed skier Nicholas Bochatay died in training for the demonstration sport.
The Albertville fatality echoed a tragedy which occurred at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. The chief doctor of the Austrian team, Jorg Oberhammer, was killed during a break in competition when he collided with another skier and was knocked into the path of a snow-clearing machine.

Organizations: IOC, Olympic Games, Whistler Sliding Centre Main Press Centre International Luge Federation CTV

Geographic location: WHISTLER, Vancouver, Albertville Italy Romania Australia Europe Calgary

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