Luge star's death leads to Olympic course change

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili leads to a last-minute decision to lower the start, drop two curves, and shorten the run in order to lower the speed on the track.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

The death of 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili-- who crashed on his luge practice run just hours before the 2010 Winter Olympics began Friday in Vancouver--wasn't the first signal that something was wrong with the track.

Several Olympic lugers from multiple countries had been calling into question the safety of the world's fastest luge run throughout this past week.

Nodar Kumaritashvili's bio on the Olympic Web site. 2010 Olympic Winter Games

Even Armin Zöeggler of Italy, the top-ranked slider in the world, crashed in training on Friday.

On Saturday, The New York Times reported on the Olympic committee's announcement that the "men's singles luge start will be lowered to the women's start and contain two fewer curves and cover 176 fewer meters. The change is expected to reduce speeds on the track."

The Olympics committee stated that the changes would be made in reaction to the emotional state of athletes--not out of safety concerns. But those reacting to Kumaritashvili's death felt differently about the safety of the course.

"Because of the physics of the curves, and going at 95 miles per hour, there's a really small margin for error," U.S. competitor Tony Benshoof, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the fastest recorded luge speed, told reporters Friday. "You really need to get it right from curve 9 to get as far as curve 13, because once you get to curve 11 and 12, you're going too fast to correct yourself."

Earlier in the week, Benshoof predicted he'd break another record at this particular track because of how close the track gets lugers to the "speed ceiling." "It's getting pretty crazy. There's that word 'dangerous,' it's like that word 'fear.' It's getting down to that. I mean, a 100 miles an hour is pretty quick. I don't know how much faster we can go," he told reporters.

Five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette of the U.S. team said this to reporters a day before Kumaritashvili's fatal crash: "You definitely have to be on your game from [curve] 11 down. I think that's definitely something they're going to have to take into account when they design future tracks."

This cacophony of warnings reminds me of the death of legendary Formula One racecar driver Ayrton Senna in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. There had been a death and a severe accident that left a driver in a coma--along with multiple complaints of procedural and track safety--leading up to the race, and Senna himself looked gravely reluctant as he stepped into his car just moments before his own fatal crash.

More recently in Italy, at the 2006 Olympic luge track in Cesana, athletes complained of safety but seemed to grow accustomed to its particular quirks quickly and without incident.

The luge races will continue in the 2010 games, though Kumaritashvili's teammates will compete in his memory, instead of at his side.