Speed to drop but sliders still need thrill

By Martyn Herman

WHISTLER (Reuters) - Nodar Kumaritashvili's fatal crash cast a shadow over the Olympic sliding events at the Vancouver Games but in four years time in Sochi men and women will once again thirst for more speed in the chase for gold.

The Georgian luger's horrific death on Whistler's 16-curve monster of a track shocked the world.

After the initial horror of Kumaritashvili's death had subsided and Whistler was restored to its full 1,400m length after being cut for the luge competitions, few who watched the skeleton and bobsleigh events could fail to have been enthralled by the speeds and daring of the competitors.

There lies the problem for the International Luge Federation (FIL) and the International Bobsleigh Federation (FIBT), the two bodies who must find the balance between testing elite athletes to their maximum while protecting them from unnecessary danger.

The Whistler track, built at a cost of C$104.9 million, witnessed a world record luge speed of 154kmh the day before tragedy struck, around 20kmh faster than previous Olympic tracks and faster than designers had predicted.

Australian luger Hannah Campbell-Pegg said on the eve of the tragedy that she felt like a "crash test dummy" while several other competitors also expressed their concerns.

The FIL maintained that the track did not have deficiencies, although they admitted it was faster than they had expected it to be and that Sochi would begin to reverse the trend.

"We want to avoid future tracks getting faster," FIL president Josef Fendt said. "In future we have to make sure tracks don't go beyond 140kmh."

SLOWING DOWN

Sochi's Games chief Dmitry Chernyshenko has already stated the 2014 Olympic track would be 10 to 15kmh slower than Whistler but not every one believes slowing down the sport is the best way to maintain its appeal.

Former NASCAR great Geoff Bodine, who has been developing sleds for the U.S. bobsleigh team since 1992, can speak with real authority about what pushes a person to go fast.

He said any knee-jerk reaction in the wake of what happened that fateful day in Whistler would be a mistake.

"There has to be a line," he told Reuters. "But this Olympics started on a very sad note and a lot of people over-reacted to the track.

"I'm a racer, a competitive guy. I liked the tracks I drove on to be as hard as possible, the fastest, the hardest, the roughest, the narrowest, because that allows me to figure how to be better than the next guy.

"A real competitive athlete wants a hard track, they don't want them to slow down and make it easy because how do they find that edge to win then? I didn't hear any of the top athletes complaining about this track."

The Olympic bandwagon will soon move away from Whistler and luge, skeleton and bobsleigh will slide back into the sporting shadows but Kumaritashvili's death should never be forgotten.

Athletes from less traditional winter sports nations must be given adequate training runs on high speed tracks like Whistler and Sochi must learn from the tragic events here.

However, sports that involve such high speeds will never be without risks and limits will always be pushed.

"What transpired in Whistler was that the track was as spectacular as we thought it was going to be," Don Krone, spokesman for the FITB said.

"The speeds and the technical nature of the track meant even the top drivers risked crashing. But in bob sport crashes are a fact of life."

(Editing by Jon Bramley)