VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A men’s Olympic luger from the country of Georgia died Friday after a high-speed crash during training. IOC president Jacques Rogge said the death hours before the opening ceremony “clearly casts a shadow over these games.”
Nodar Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled, went over the track wall and struck an unpadded steel pole near the finish line at Whistler Sliding Center. Doctors were unable to revive the 21-year-old luger, who died at a hospital, the International Olympic Committee said.
Rescue workers were at his side within seconds, chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation started less than one minute after the crash, and he was quickly airlifted to a trauma center in Whistler.
Kumaritashvili struck the inside wall of the track on the final turn. His body immediately went airborne and cleared the ice-coated concrete wall along the left side of the sliding surface. His sled remained in the track, and it appeared his helmet visor skidded down the ice.
“It’s a very rare situation,” three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said before learning of the death and was clearly shaken moments after seeing Kumaritashvili tended to furiously by medical officials.
Olympic competition in men’s luge is scheduled to begin Saturday. It’s unclear if that schedule would be affected.
It was Kumaritashvili’s second crash during training for the Vancouver Games. He also failed to finish his second of six practice runs, and in the runs he did finish, his average speed was about 88 mph — significantly less than the speed the top sliders are managing on this lightning-fast course.
It was unclear how fast Kumaritashvili was going, although many sliders have exceeded 90 mph on this course. The track is considered the world’s fastest and several Olympians recently questioned its safety. More than a dozen athletes have crashed during Olympic training for luge, and some questioned whether athletes from smaller nations — like Georgia — had enough time to prepare for the daunting track.
At the finish area, not far from where Kumaritashvili lost control, athletes, coaches and officials solemnly awaited word on Kumaritashvili before eventually being ushered away. Access to the crash area was closed within about 30 minutes.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Shiva Keshavan, a four-time Olympian from India.
The remainder of men’s training was canceled for the day, with VANOC officials saying in a release that an investigation was taking place to “ensure a safe field of play.”
Kumaritashvili competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.
Earlier in the day, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled on Curve 11. Zoeggeler came off his sled and held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing atop his body. He slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away.
Training days in Whistler have been crash-filled. A Romanian woman was briefly knocked unconscious and at least four Americans — Chris Mazdzer on Wednesday, Megan Sweeney on Thursday and both Tony Benshoof and Bengt Walden on Friday in the same training session where Zoeggeler wrecked — have had serious trouble just getting down the track.
“I think they are pushing it a little too much,” Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg said Thursday night after she nearly lost control in training. “To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”
At the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, Nicholas Bochatay of Switzerland died after crashing into a snow grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport of speed skiing on the next-to-last day of the games. He was practicing on a public slope before his event was to begin.
Austrian downhill skier Ross Milne died when he struck a tree during a training run shortly before the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki also died in a crash during training in Innsbruck.
At the 1988 Calgary Games, an Austrian team doctor, Jorg Oberhammer, died after being hit by a snow grooming machine.