Olympic Sliders Ready to Race, With Misgivings
GWEN THOMPKINS, host:
There was a mixture of sadness and excitement at the Whistler Sliding Center last night as the luge competition began. The Olympic track had been reconfigured for better safety after the crash Friday that killed a young athlete from the Republic of Georgia. Now the start is slower so that the sleds don't build up as much speed. Athletes were ready to race, but with some misgivings. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: The crowd along the luge track in Whistler seemed ready.
(Soundbite of cheering)
BERKES: Despite skies dripping first with rain before snowflakes finally fell. And as athletes completed their runs without a single mishap, some seemed relieved. Ruben Gonzalez of Argentina was grateful for the changes after the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.
Mr. RUBEN GONZALEZ (Luger, Argentina): I've been doing this for 25 years. I've never seen anybody fly off a track like this. Never. It just doesn't happen. Nodar proved that on this track if you hit that just right, you could bounce off and you will fly off. He proved that it's possible.
BERKES: And it could've me, Gonzalez said. So he welcomed the wall now 12 feet high coming out of the last turn and the newly carved ice that channels rogue sleds away from the wall. But he wasn't sure the new start was necessary. Men moved down to the women's start and the women moved down to the juniors' start to make the fastest track in the world slower.
Chris Mazdzer of the United States said the lower starts didn't make much difference.
Mr. CHRIS MAZDZER (Luger, U.S.): You know, it's still fast. You know, the bottom we're only going five miles an hour slower. Moving down didn't slow down the bottom at all. It just slowed down the midsection.
BERKES: Mazdzer also found the move from the men's to the women's start a challenge.
Mr. MAZDZER: I felt actually more confident from men's start 'cause I've had more training. You know, my timing was just down from men's start. I was so used to feeling the curves and pressures from up there. Because of that, you know, everything changes.
BERKES: Still, Mazdzer welcomed the new precautions. Nothing like Friday's accident, he said, should ever happen again. Ruben Gonzalez was initially reluctant to talk about Kumaritashvili.
Mr. GONZALEZ: We're not talking about it right now 'cause we got to get on that track.
BERKES: But when pressed, the 47-year-old Gonzalez revealed that the 21-year-old Kumaritashvili, befriend the Argentinean when he returned to the sport after a six-year hiatus.
Mr. GONZALEZ: He's the kind of kid that I want my kids to grow up to be, right? Somebody that's, you know, always respectful, always just a good kid. It's just too bad, you know, actually when it happened - two hours before he had to board the bus to go to the opening ceremonies. I mean, it's so sad.
BERKES: Kumaritashvili's presence on the track was left to black strips on the helmets of other lugers. Even the last bit of ice he slid on was shaved away so the track would be safer. But down the mountain in the village of Whistler, where a massive sculpture of the five Olympic rings stands, flowers, photos and candles comprise a makeshift memorial. And in the day's early rain, the flickering light and the tiny flames faded away.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Vancouver.