Luge track changes, but standings are little altered

February 13, 2010|By Candus Thomson | | Baltimore Sun reporter

WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Taming the world's fastest luge track to prevent the type of crash that killed a young slider during a training run didn't do much to alter the standings Saturday among the world's elite sliders after the first of four runs.

With a light snow falling, Germany's Felix Loch, who holds the track record of 95.6 mph, was in first place with a time of 48.168 seconds. Countryman David Moeller, a two-time world champion who finished fifth in the Turin Olympics, is in second, just .179 seconds back. And .126 second behind him is Italy's Armin Zoeggeler, hoping to win a third consecutive gold medal.

The evening was not without a moment of anxiety. Spectators gasped as U.S. slider Bengt Walden had trouble steering his sled and bounced off the lip of the top of the track near where Nodar Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled and died. Walden crossed the finish line unharmed and in 20th place.

Tony Benshoof, the most decorated U.S. slider, is in seventh place (48.657 seconds) and Chris Mazdzer is in 12th place (48.811).

Gordy Sheer, a spokesman for USA Luge, said athletes had been offered counseling, but he did not know if any of them had accepted it.

"I have no idea what our athletes are going through now, said Sheer, a 1998 Olympic silver medalist. "No one has ever been through this before."

Athletes wore black bands on their helmets to honor Kumaritashvili, 21, of the Republic of Georgia who was killed within sight of the finish line Friday when he was catapulted out of the track and into a unpadded roof support beam. His teammate, Levan Gureshidze, withdrew just before the competition began.

Overnight, race officials moved the men's start about 100 feet lower to the women's and doubles start and increased the height of walls and reshaped the ice to keep crashing athletes in the track. As a result, speeds decreased from 94 mph to the upper 80s, more in line with World Cup racing.

But even as the international luge community honored one of its own, officials began calling for changes in how competitions are run and tracks are built.

Ron Rossi, CEO of USA Luge, said he will be proposing rules changes to address what he believes are shortcomings and fine track designers for poor work.

"Lots of drivers make errors, but they don't come flying out of the track," said Ron Rossi after women's training runs earlier in the day. "They need to be asking questions about training time, lack of track designer accountability. . . . I'm going to propose rule changes so there is more training time for all. I'm all for fairness, especially when it saves lives."

International luge officials and executives with the Vancouver organizing committee spent the day trying to put out fires as questions mounted. They released records showing that in 26 runs down the Whistler track, Kumaritashvili, ranked 44th in the world, had crashed in that area at least three times.

At a news conference Saturday morning, Josef Fendt, the president of the International Luge Federation, insisted the track was safe.

"We never said that it was too fast," he said through a translator. "We do not push our athletes to the limits."

Tim Gayda, the Vancouver organizing committee's vice president of sport, said that since the opening of the track to training and competition two years ago, luge athletes had completed about 5,000 runs.

"We believe . . . we did everything in our power to make the track as safe as you can," he said. "We're quite confident where we are."

The second run was later Saturday night and the final two runs will begin Sunday at 1 p.m. PST.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.