Luge death ruled accidental, but safety eyed

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the eve of the Vancouver Winter Olympics was accidental, but the incident raises safety issues for the sport, a Canadian coroner reported on Monday.

The report recommended the International Luge Federation require more venue-specific training immediately before major competitions such as the Olympics and on new facilities like the one constructed for the 2010 Games.

An independent safety audit should also be conducted on the track where Kumaritashvili died, and international sporting officials should look at safety protocols for other facilities, especially new ones, the coroner recommended.

Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled and slammed into an exposed steel pillar during his last training run at the Whistler Sliding Center on February 12, just hours before the Games' opening ceremonies.

His death was the first of a luge athlete in competition since 1975, and controversy surrounding it dogged organizers of the Vancouver Games with questions over the safety of the high-speed track's design.

Investigators say the accident appeared to be the result of both Kumaritashvili's relative inexperience with the track and the various safety features that failed to anticipate the type of incident that killed him.

"The collision was a result of an interaction of factors, including high speed, technical challenges and exacting physical forces ... overwhelming the athlete and causing the irretrievable loss of control of the sled," British Columbia Coroner Tom Pawlowski concluded.

Pawlowski said he did not have the authority to rule if the track design was acceptably safe to have been used for the Games, and noted the percentage of crashes at Whistler before Kumaritashvili's accident had been lower and less severe than at many other tracks.


It appeared "best practices" were used in designing the track, but "Kumaritashvili's death has shown us that the previously employed best practices have not been infallible," Pawlowski said.

The agency now operating the track said it will conduct the recommended audit, looking at both the design and physiological guidelines for those using it.

The track was also used for bobsleigh and skeleton competitions in the Olympics. It will host bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup events in November, but does not yet have any international luge races scheduled.

Padding was added to the posts after the accident, but Pawlowski said that would likely not have saved his life given the speed at which he hit it. Kumaritashvili reached speeds as high as 144.3 km/h (93.8 mph) during that run down the ice.

The International Luge Federation, which initially blamed the accident on human error, allowed Olympic competition to continue for the Games but changed the starting spot in a bid to reduce speeds on the track.

Vancouver Organizing Committee chief John Furlong said the Winter Games had delivered the facility that world sports federations had requested, and he hoped athletes, coaches and technical experts would all learn from the accident.

(Reporting Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson)