Luge Competition Goes On Despite Tragedy

Olympic officials have decided that the luge competition will go on as scheduled Saturday, despite the death of Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvilli. He was killed Friday during a training run when he slid out of control, flew off the track and slammed into a metal post. NPR's Howard Berkes has the latest.

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There was excitement and sorrow at the opening ceremony of the Olympics last night in Vancouver. The festivities were tempered by the death earlier in the day of a 21-year-old luge athlete, who flew off the Olympic course in Whistler during the training run.

We'll have more on the ceremony in a moment. First, NPR's Howard Berkes describes the fatal accident and its aftermath.

HOWARD BERKES: First-time Olympian Nodar Kumaritashvili was rocketing out of the last curve on the Olympic luge track at close to 90 miles an hour, feet first and face up, when his sled slid into a side wall. The Georgian athlete was launched directly into a steel pillar and collapsed like a rag doll - arms, legs and head limp.

Attempts to revive him failed and suddenly, the pageantry and promise of the Olympics dimmed.

Mr. JACQUES ROGGE (President, International Olympic Committee): Here you have a young athlete who 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.

BERKES: This is Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, at a morning news conference Friday. Rogge brushed aside questions about the design and danger of the Olympic track in Whistler.

Mr. ROGGE: I'm sorry, this is a time for sorrow; it's not a time to look for reasons. That will come in due time.

BERKES: At midday Friday, the Georgian minister of culture and sport sought to deflect any possible blame from Kumaritashvili. Nikolas Rurua said the Georgian comes from a family of athletes in the country's winter sport center. His father heads the Georgian Luge Federation and the younger Kumaritashvili, Rurua said, was competent in his sport.

Mr. NIKOLAS RURUA (Minister of Culture, Georgia): He was well- qualified, very hard worker in this particular field and he, for example, yesterday during training, he took 11th spot. So, insinuations, speculations about his experience, to me, seems a little bit unfair and misleading.

BERKES: But late Friday night, Olympic officials issued a statement essentially blaming driver error. There was no indication, they said, that deficiencies in the track were at fault. Still, they decided to raise the wall that failed to stop Kumaritashvili from flying off the course, and they said they would change the profile of the ice, presumably to make it safer.

Bobsledders use the same track, and the day before the crash, Americans John Napier and Steve Holcomb described the speed and danger of the course as challenges. Napier speaks first.

Mr. JOHN NAPIER (U.S. Bobsledding Team): You know, everybody says it's on the edge of your reaction time. It's exhilarating, the speed, just kind of adds a factor. This is why we do it, to go fast.

Mr. STEVE HOLCOMB (U.S. Bobsledding Team): It'll be hard and it's going to take everything we've got to get through there fast, but we don't, you know, you don't hold back and you don't take anything cautiously. There's no safe line. There's either the winning line or the losing line. And if you want to win, it's the obvious one to take.

BERKES: Australian luge slider Hannah Campbell-Pegg also spoke the day before the accident. And she said the track turns athletes into lemmings and crash-test dummies. In fact, the best sliders in the world have crashed on the course in the past week, and there have been concerns about its speed and danger for months.

The British Columbia coroner and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police completed their on-track investigations without comment. Training is set to resume this morning, and the first luge competition will begin as scheduled tonight.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, Vancouver.

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