WHISTLER (Reuters) - A huge black cloud descended over the Vancouver Olympic on Friday after 21-year-old Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a horrific training crash at the Whistler Sliding Center.
Kumaritashvili was making his final practice slide before Saturday’s competition when he lost control at 90mph on the exit of the 16th corner and was launched over the rim of the track before crumpling into a pillar.
He was given emergency resuscitation at the scene by medical staff before being flown down the mountain by helicopter where he died in hospital. Ashen-faced course officials walked around in stunned silence as they waited for news.
“Unfortunately, he died,” Georgian Olympic delegation head Irakly Japaridze told Reuters by telephone.
“We are all in deep shock, we don’t know what to do. We don’t know whether to take part in (today’s) opening ceremony or even the Olympic Games themselves.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Luge Federation (FIL) issued a joint statement confirming Kumaritashvili’s death.
“Our first thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues of the athlete. The whole Olympic Family is struck by this tragedy which clearly casts a shadow over these Games,” IOC president Jacques Rogge said in the statement.
“This is a terrible accident,” added FIL president Josef Fendt. “This is the gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the luge family are naturally with those touched by the event.”
Vancouver organizing committee (VANOC) head John Furlong said he was stunned by the fatality on what should have been a joyous day for his staff.
“Nodar came to Canada with hopes and dreams that it would be a great moment in his life,” he told a news conference. “He came to feel what it is like to be an Olympian. We are all heartbroken.”
Luge training was immediately suspended and there were doubts over whether the first two runs of the men’s singles scheduled for Saturday would take place.
Investigations over the cause of the crash were ongoing and a teams’ meeting was due to be held later on Friday.
Kumaritashvili, the son of Selix, the head of the Georgian Luge Federation, was competing at his first Olympics after racing in five World Cup events this year with little success.
His death is the first luge fatality in the Olympic Games since Briton Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski died during a training run in Innsbruck, Austria in 1964 — the first year that luge was included in the Games.
An FIL spokesman said on Friday that at a recent international training week at Whistler Sliding Center, acknowledged as the fastest in the world, there had been 2,500 runs with only a three percent crash rate.
However, all week athletes have remarked on the speed and technical difficulty of the 1,400 meter track that features corners nicknamed 50-50 and Shiver and on Thursday FIL spokesman Wolfgang Harder said that future tracks would need to be slowed down to protect the safety of athletes.
Friday’s fatal accident occurred on the 16th corner, the final curve of a high-speed labyrinth that has proved treacherous even for the world’s top lugers.
Earlier on Friday, double Olympic champion and gold medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy was caught out at the 11th corner and was flipped off his sled while on Thursday a Romanian woman competitor was briefly knocked unconscious.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Jon Bramley