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Officials Announce Change to Luge Competition

Mens lugers will now start farther down the track

By Caitlin Millat, Greg Wilson and Tamer El-Ghobashy
|  Friday, Feb 26, 2010  |  Updated 11:36 AM CDT
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Officials Announce Change to Luge Competition

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VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 12: Members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raise the Canadian flag during the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics at BC Place on February 12, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

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International luge officials announced Saturday that the start of the men's Olympic luge competition is moving farther down the track. It was a decision made with the ''emotional component'' of athletes in mind following the death of a Georgian competitor.

Men's training on Saturday morning, as well as all four runs of the men's competition that begins later, will take place from the women's start ramp. The move means speeds will be a bit lower at the Whistler Sliding Track and it is likely that the course will be easier to navigate.

Olympic officials declared Friday night as the Opening Ceremonies lit the city of Vancouver that a competition track was not responsible for the tragic death of a luger from the Soviet Republic of Georgia during practice for the Games.

The officials decided not to change the luge track itself but would raise the wall in the area where Nodar Kumaritashvili flew off the track as a preventative measure. Kumaritashvili, 21, was performing a training run on the course when he lost control of his sled, flew over a track wall and hit a steel pole near the finish line at the Whistler Sliding Center in Vancouver, according to the Toronto Sun.

The athlete's crash was the result of human error and that "there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track," the International Luge Federation and Vancouver Olympic Officials said in a statement late Friday evening.

Kumaritashvili, a native of Borjomi, Georgia, did not compensate after the fatal turn, according to the statement.

"This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled, resulting in the tragic accident," it read.

The luger slammed into the pole at nearly 90 mph, according to the statement. His last recorded speed was 89.4 mph.

Kumaritashvili was also honored Friday evening at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, as the stadium observed a full minute of silence in his name and his Georgian teammates marched in wearing black armbands.

His demise marked the first death at the Winter Games since 1992, when a speed skier crashed into a snow-grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport in Albertville. 

"I've never seen anything like that," said Shiva Keshavan, a four-time Olympian from India said before knowing Kumaritashvili's fate.

IOC president Jacques Rogge said the death “clearly casts a shadow over these games."

"Sorry, it's a bit difficult to remain composed. This is a very sad day," said IOC president Jacques Rogge, pausing to take off his glasses and control his emotions. "The IOC's in deep mourning.

"Here you have a young athlete who's lost his life in pursuing his passion. He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident. I have no words to say what we feel," he told a packed news conference that lasted less than seven minutes at Vancouver's Main Press Centre.

Medics tried CPR on the 21-year-old athlete, a native of Borjomi, Georgia, but to no avail. He died at a nearby hospital, the Associated Press reported.

"We are heartbroken beyond words," said John Furlong, chief executive of the Vancouver organizing committee.

Kumaritashvili competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.

"My thoughts and prayers are with the Georgian Olympic team," U.S. bobsled pilot Steven Holcomb said on Twitter. "The sliding community suffered a tragic and devastating loss to our family today."

"RIP Nodar Kumaritashvili," wrote American skeleton athlete Kyle Tress, who did not qualify for the Olympic team. "Let's never forget how dangerous these sports can be."

Earlier in the day, gold-medal favorite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled around the same curve. Zoeggeler came off his sled, held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing atop his body, and slid on his back down several curves before coming to a stop and walking away, NBC Sports reported.

Training days in Whistler have been crash-filled, with a Romanian woman 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 -- having serious trouble just getting down the track.

The luge competition is scheduled to begin Saturday and it remains unclear if the tragedy will change that. Training on the track has been canceled for the day to "ensure a safe field of play" officials said.

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