VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from the Republic of Georgia, died after a high-speed crash during his final training run, casting a pall over the start of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Kumaritashvili was going 88 mph when his sled flew off the course after rounding the final corner of the Whistler Sliding Centre track, a course that some Olympians had complained was dangerously fast. He slammed his upper body on an unpadded metal pole and was knocked unconscious. Blood was pouring from his face, according to wire reports, and he was placed on a stretcher. Doctors were unable to revive him, and he died at a local hospital.
Olympic and Vancouver officials were nearly in tears as they discussed the tragedy hours before the Opening Ceremonies.
Kumaritashvili is the fourth Winter Olympian to die, and all the deaths happened during training runs.
"We are heartbroken beyond words," said John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver organizing committee. "This athlete came to Canada with hopes and dreams that this would be a magnificent occasion in his life. I am told by members of his delegation that he was an incredibly spirited person. He came here to experience what being an Olympian was."
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was visibly shaken as he addressed the media. "Here you have a young athlete that 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. The whole Olympic family is struck by this tragedy, which clearly casts a shadow over these Games."
Asked if the track was too challenging for some Olympians, Rogge said: "This is not the time for that debate. This is a time of deep sorrow. That discussion will come in due time."
The International Luge Federation is conducting an investigation into the circumstances of the accident. Training was suspended, and officials want to make absolutely certain the course is safe for competition.
Josef Fendt, president of the ILF, said: "This is a terrible accident. 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 this event."
The track is one of the fastest in the world, and more than a dozen Olympians had crashed during training this week. Armin Zoeggler of Italy, the 2002 and 2006 gold medalist, crashed Friday morning but was unhurt. Violeta Stramaturaru of Romania crashed on Thursday and was knocked unconscious but wasn't seriously injured.
Earlier in the week, U.S. luger Tony Benshoof said of the dangers of the sport: "The tracks are getting faster and faster. It's getting pretty crazy."
Hannah Campbell-Pegg, an Australian luger, went a step further. "I think they are pushing it a little too much," she told reporters after Thursday's training runs. "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."
Georgia Minister of Culture and Sport Nikolos Rurua said the Georgian team will stay and compete in their teammate's memory.
"We decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games," he said. "The athletes will dedicate their performances to their fallen comrade."
Kaufman reports for the Miami Herald