Will the tragedy on Whistler luge track change the sport?

We take you behind the scenes this month with our timely Vancouver Games Blog, an insider perspective on sport medicine and science headlines, talking points, statistical data and emerging trends.

The tragic death yesterday of 21 year old Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili has raised a number of questions about the sport of luge. After an investigation by Olympic Organizing committee  and the sport’s international governing body FIL it was determined that human error was the cause of the deadly training run crash that claimed Kumaritashvili – who had completed 26 runs on the Whistler track. “It appears after a routine run, the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16,” the statement said. “This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident. The technical officials of the FIL were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.”

Track crews did however make modifications to the course including constructing of a higher plywood wall at curve 16 where Kumaritashvili flew off the track. They also made modifications to the ice profile.  “This was done as a preventative measure, in order to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again” said the joint statement from FIL and the Olympic organizing committee. Today it was also decided that course should be slowed down, the Men’s competition will now use the Women’s start line.

In an article appearing in the UK’s Mirror a number of sliders sounded off on the safety concerns in their sport:

British skeleton team performance director Andi Schmid said the risk of accidents had risen because of a lack practice time. He added: “We need to be careful that these sports don’t become killer sports.” Before Kumaritashvili’s crash, British skeleton slider Amy Williams had also raised concerns. She said: “I just hope Whistler is safe and that there aren’t too many crashes and serious injuries.” And Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg added: “I think they are pushing it a little too much. “To what extent are we little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”

The Globe & Mail’s Jeff Blair wrote an article on the Whistler Sliding Centre that first appeared on February 6th titled “Why this track means fear”. That article now appears to have potentially foreshadowed yesterday’s terrible tragedy:

Early in the planning for the 2014 Sochi Games, the Russian hosts were told flatly by the sport’s governing bodies: those speeds at the Whistler Sliding Centre? Don’t even dream of trying to match them.

Think about that: how many sports have essentially stood up and said: Enough!

The sport has screamed Uncle, Onkel and Dyadya.

“In 30 years, who knows?” said Canadian luger Jeff Christie, a Vancouver native who represents the athletes. “But I know that the FIL [the governing body] has told tracks that in the future, 135ish [kilometres an hour] is about it.”

But that won’t be ‘it’ in Whistler.

The two fastest speeds in World Cup luge and bobsleigh history were recorded here last season. German luger Felix Loch hit 153.937 km/h. Janis Minins of Latvia became the first four-man bobsleigh driver to reach 153 km/h – more than five km/h better than the fastest time posted on the World Cup this year, on the natural ice surface at St. Moritz, a track with fewer perils than Whistler’s.

Whistler’s reputation was established in November, 2008 when Loch damaged shoulder tendons in a crash and was one of three lugers hospitalized, and Canadian bob driver Pierre Lueders crashed in Corner 7, which was instantly named Lueders’ Loop.

Holcomb has since claimed that the course was designed backward, with tighter turns near the bottom where sleds max-out the speed. And American luger Tony Benshoof told NBC: “When I first got on this track, I thought that somebody was going to kill themselves.”

American Tony Benshoof was the first to test the modified track, from the lower Women’s starting position, when the training runs resumed this morning and he successfully navigated the course without incident – although at an apparently  visibly slower pace according to this article in the NY Times.

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