It wasn't even curve 16 of the Whistler track that bobsledders and lugers were worried about. They were leery of curve 13, known as the 50--50 curve because that's the chance they figured they had of making it through right-side up. But it was at the end of 16—the Thunderbird curve, about 30 feet from the finish line—where 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled on a training run last Friday, flew backward over the short wall of ice and died when his helmet struck a steel support pole.
"Our hearts are broken," Kumaritashvili's father, David, told reporters in the Republic of Georgia. Kumaritashvili's hometown of Bakuriani, a winter sports mecca of 4,600 people, was set to honor its favorite slider on Feb. 22, during the annual Bakuriani Day festival. The mayor has canceled the celebration. Kumaritashvili's fellow Georgian slider, 21-year-old Levan Gureshidze, was excited to compete in his first Olympics on Saturday. He withdrew from the Games instead. Gureshidze only stopped by the track to stare emptily at the spot where his friend had died, marked now by an extended wooden safety barrier and a cluster of yellow daffodils.
As a result of Kumaritashvili's death, the men's singles event changed for every competitor still in the race. The starting line was moved almost 600 feet down the track to the women's starting point, reducing the sliders' speed at the top of the new course by as much as 30 mph. The lugers, all of whom wore a black stripe on their helmets in memory of Kumaritashvili, accepted the change begrudgingly. "From a safety standpoint, I see why they did what they did," said top American luger Tony Benshoof, who would finish eighth behind winner Felix Loch of Germany on Sunday. "But I was comfortable with the speed."
After the fatal accident most of the lugers acknowledged that theirs is a dangerous sport. Yet serious injuries in luge are rare—the crash rate at most tracks is 1% to 3%, with the injury rate naturally lower—and the last fatality was in 1975. That safety record was one reason the tragedy was so shocking. "I've been in this sport 35 years and never experienced something like this," said U.S. luge coach Wolfgang Sch√§dler. "I don't know how to feel."
To those who have mastered the tiny sled, jetting down the track at 90 mph and six inches off the ice seems less risky than driving a car. All the lugers whom SI interviewed favored returning to the men's original starting line, and a few suggested that using the women's start was dangerous because they had had less practice from that point. "If we didn't like the speed, we'd play chess," said Bulgarian slider Ivan Papukchiev. "There are risks in life every day."
FINAL RUN Kumaritashvili was traveling almost 90 mph when he lost control of his sled and flew off the track into a pole.
PETER PARKS/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]