Luge: Anniversary of Georgian's death to hang heavy over track

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - An Olympic luge tournament that has opened without major incident at the Pyeongchang Games will have a note of sorrow on Monday, the eighth anniversary of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Kumaritashvili, from the tiny skiing hamlet of Bakuriani in the Caucasian nation, died at the age of 21 on Feb. 12 2010 in a sickening training crash at the Whistler track hours before the start of the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games.

The death, the first at a major luge competition in 35 years, devastated Kumaritashvili’s family while casting a pall over the Games and plunging the perilous sliding sport into a period of introspection.

Eight years on, the legacy of Kumaritashvili’s death is manifest in the design of the Olympic Sliding Centre track in Pyeongchang, with higher sidewalls and padded pillars part of the stricter safety protocols in place since Vancouver.

Veteran lugers remember the gloom that hung over the 2010 tournament, which went ahead after a wall was raised and the ice profile of the track was changed.

“It was hard for everyone. It was obviously such a negative thing that overshadowed a lot of the Olympics,” Canadian Tristan Walker, who competed in the men’s doubles event with Justin Snith in Vancouver, told Reuters on Sunday.

Kumaritashvili came off his sled, flew off the track and slammed into an exposed steel pillar during his final training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre, renowned as one of the world’s fastest tracks.

The International Luge Federation (FIL) deemed it an “unforeseeable fatal accident” and ruled out any fault with the track or the Georgian’s sled.

A coroner’s report said it was the result of a number of converging factors, including driver error and “exacting physical forces”.

But FIL president Josef Fendt had expressed concerns about the speed of the track a year before the Games after a record time was set there.

Luge tracks are now designed to limit speeds to 140 kph for a sport in which sledders wear helmets but little other protection.

No deaths have been recorded in high-level competitions since Vancouver.

The FIL remains in contact with relatives of Kumaritashvili, whose grandfather is credited with introducing the sport to Georgia. The country is being represented by a sole athlete in the current tournament, Giorgi Sogoiani, in the men’s singles.

The Pyeongchang track has had mostly rave reviews from the lugers but turn nine has caused problems for even the most experienced competitors.

Hearts were in mouths on Saturday when Ukraine’s Andriy Mandziy came off his sled at high speed during the men’s singles preliminaries but he kept hold of it as he slid down the ice before re-boarding to finish the run.

Lugers have welcomed having extra training runs to get accustomed to the track and feel the federation is doing what it can to prevent serious accidents.

There is, though, no way the sport can be made one hundred percent safe, they say, nor would they necessarily want it that way.

“Like I said, it’s a dangerous sport. Honestly, you look at the personalities around the track, that’s why we do it,” said Canadian Walker, who is teaming up with Snith for a third Olympics.

“If you want something safe, play chess.”

Editing by Clare Fallon