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1 Olmpic Sliding resumes on Sat Feb 13, 2010 7:23 pm


WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) - Olympic luge events will start farther down the track than originally planned, officials said Saturday, a decision they made with the "emotional component" of athletes in mind following the death of a Georgian competitor.

They reiterated that the lightning-fast track was safe for competition, and Olympic officials said they were "completely satisfied" with the adjustments.
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"We never said it is too fast," International Luge Federation president Josef Fendt said.

An extra session of men's training, as well as all four runs of the men's event - two on Saturday, two on Sunday - will begin from the women's start ramp. Meanwhile, the women's and doubles entrants in the Olympic field will now start even lower, at the junior start position, between the fifth and sixth curves.

It means speeds in all luge events will be a bit slower at the Whistler Sliding Track, where 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed and died in a training run on Friday after his body flew over the track wall and smashed into a steel pole at nearly 90 mph.

The decision to change the start's location seemed to have the desired effect during men's training on Saturday, the first session on the track after Kumaritashvili's terrifying crash. None of the 36 sliders, all of whom wore black tape on the left sides of their helmets in tribute to Kumaritashvili, broke 90 mph after speeds routinely surpassed 95 mph earlier in the week.

Russia's Albert Demtschenko was clocked at 88.1 mph after topping at 94.6 mph in his fifth practice run.

Germany's Felix Loch was fastest in training at 89.2 mph - well off his track record of 95.68 set during a World Cup event last year.

Other changes were made overnight, including raising the wall at Curve 16, the area where Kumaritashvili crashed; some modifications were also made to the surface of the ice itself. During the training session Saturday morning, workers were seen strapping padding to the steel poles along the finish curve.

When training resumed from the lower start, American Tony Benshoof - the first man to slide in the session - navigated the track without incident.

"For me, personally, and for the International Luge Federation, yesterday was the worst day," Fendt said. "The saddest day."

Kumaritashvili's teammate, Levan Gureshidze, did not train on Saturday, skipping both runs. He was at the track, wearing a black armband, and there was no official word on why he did not slide or if he planned to race when the men's competition opened later Saturday.

Argentina's Ruben Gonzalez, the first person to compete in four Winter Olympics in four different decades, also skipped the training run. It was unclear if Gonzalez, from Katy, Texas, would compete later on.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge planned to attend Saturday's competition, which was certain to have a somber atmosphere. Someone placed a small bouquet of yellow flowers near the bottom of the pole that Kumaritashvili struck. A man was seen kneeling near the pole, sobbing as the morning training session ended.

"We're confident it will be a successful competition," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "We're totally convinced the sliding center is safe."

Kumaritashvili's death was believed to be the first on a sanctioned luge track since December 1975, the federation said.

After taking a deep breath, Benshoof, a three-time Olympian exhaled, dropped his visor and headed down the world's fastest track. Even to the naked eye, he wasn't moving with nearly the speed he managed during practice this week. TV cameras were even behind while trying to adjust to the slower sleds.

Because of the alteration to the women's start, Benshoof's time of 49.260 seconds was more than two seconds slower than the time recorded by Germany's Felix Loch on Friday. Benshoof, who has at least three herniated discs and was dealing with an injured foot Friday, needed help lifting his sled off the ice but was otherwise fine.

Benshoof did not want to talk about Friday's tragedy after his run.

None of the early riders had any trouble on the speedy track, though some wrestled with the emotion of returning to competition.

"It's really difficult to start," said Slovenia's Domen Pociecha. "Everybody's thinking the same thing. You can see it in their faces."

It remains unknown if the start positions will be changed for upcoming bobsled and skeleton competitions, a decision that will be made in consultation with the governing body for those sports and not the FIL.

"That will be really up to them," VANOC vice president Tim Gayda said.

FIL secretary general Svein Romstad said the G-forces generated by Kumaritashvili exiting the 15th curve and entering the 16th and final curve "literally collapsed his body, rendering it difficult to control the sled, which in this case he was not able to do.

"Once this happened, he was literally at the mercy of the path of the sled," Romstad said.

Including past training sessions starting last November, Kumaritashvili had 26 runs down the icy chute in all, and data distributed by the FIL indicated that he crashed at least three times around the area of the final curve.

From the men's luge start, which won't be used going forward during these Olympics, Kumaritashvili crashed four times in 16 tries.

The International Luge Federation and Vancouver Olympic officials said Friday night their investigation showed that the crash was the result of human error and there was "no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."

In a joint statement they said Kumaritashvili was late coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate.

Kumaritashvili's death cast a pall over the Winter Games before they even started.

"I have no words to say what we feel," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, visibly shaken by the day's events.

Concerns about the course had been raised for months. There were worries that the $100 million-plus venue was too technically difficult, and a lack of significant practice time by everyone but the host nation's sliders would result in a rash of accidents.

"It is a nervous situation," Latvian luge federation president Atis Strenga said. "It's a big tragedy for all (of) luge. I hope, we all hope, it's the first accident and the last accident in this race."

Problems at the track date back to World Cup events and international training weeks held last year, when several of the world's top bobsled drivers were upended trying to make their way down the track with its tricky labyrinth of curves and unprecedented speed.

American pilot Steve Holcomb christened one of the course's toughest sections - the 13th curve - as "50-50" to reflect the odds of steering a sled through it cleanly.

Kumaritashvili, who had crashed during training on Wednesday, was nearing the bottom of his sixth practice run in a turn nicknamed "Thunderbird." His last recorded speed was 89.4 mph, measured near the last curve. He was on a higher path - line, they call it in luge - down the final bends than most sliders prefer, and the combination of speed and gravitational pull was too much for his 176-pound body to control.

Sliding diagonally, Kumaritashvili smashed into a corner entering the final straightaway feet-first. He was knocked off his sled and sailed in the other direction, apparently hitting his head before coming to rest on a metal walkway. His sled stayed on the track and skidded to a stop near the finish line.

The first rescue worker just happened to be nearby and was at his side within three seconds.

At the finish line, there was a loud gasp as onlookers watched in horror as he was catapulted helplessly through the air. Officials quickly switched off a giant TV screen showing the action on the track and did not show a replay of the incident. Soon after, the track was closed as local and Royal Canadian Mounted Police kept media members at a distance as the investigation began.

Kumaritashvili's inexperience may have played a factor in the crash, but he had qualified to compete. This would have been his first Olympics. He competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.

A colleague of Kumaritashvili says the luger was thrilled to be at the Olympics and looking forward to racing.

Georgian delegation member Rusiko Aptsiauri described him as a "a very good person, very quiet and decent, very polite," and said that Georgia's luge coach spoke about the difficulty of the Whistler Sliding Track before the fatal accident a day earlier coming out of turn 16.

"When you are going that fast it just takes one slip and you can have that big mistake," U.S. doubles luger Christian Niccum said Thursday, when asked about track safety. "All of us are very calm going down, but if you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick reactions, that sled will steer. That's the difference between luge and bobsled and skeleton, we're riding on a very sharp edge and that sled will go exactly where we tell it to so you better be telling it the right things on the way down."

Earlier in the day, two-time Olympic champion 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 knocked unconscious and at least four Americans - Chris Mazdzer on Wednesday, Megan Sweeney on Thursday and both Benshoof and Bengt Walden on Friday in the same training session where Zoeggeler wrecked - have had serious trouble just getting down the track.

Rogge said he was in contact with Kumaritashvili's family - the slider's father is president of the Georgian luge federation and his cousin is the team's coach, VANOC officials said - and the Georgian government. The remaining seven members of the Georgian Olympic delegation decided to stay in the games and dedicated their performances to their fallen teammate.

They marched into BC Place Stadium wearing black armbands and their nation's red-and-white flag was trimmed with a black ribbon. Later, a full minute of silence was observed in honor of Kumaritashvili, the fourth competitor to die at the Winter Games, all in training, and the first since 1992.

"It's really unfortunate to have something like that happen," U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White said. "We're all in different sports and from different countries but when we get here, we're all part of the same family. It's definitely affected everyone here."

Under giant Olympic rings near the medals plaza in downtown Whistler, mourners placed candles and flowers around a photograph of Kumaritashvili, on his sled and barreling down the track. Around the photo, an inscription read: "In Memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, May he rest in peace."

Crashes happen often in luge - at least 12 sliders have wrecked just this week on the daunting Whistler surface. Still, some who have been around tracks their entire lives couldn't remember someone actually being thrown over the wall.

"It's a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said.

Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn't believe the Whistler track was unsafe.

"People have the opinion it is dangerous but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe," he said. "My opinion is that it's not any more dangerous than anywhere else

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