Winter Olympics Journal

February 12, 2010 11:33 PM

Luge death provides somber backdrop to Olympics Opening Day at Whistler

WHISTLER, B.C. -- Nothing told the tale of a wrenching opening day at the 2010 Winter Olympics than this jarring scene at Whistler Village Friday evening.

At one end of the village, more than 1,000 people packed into Village Square, cheering and watching the Opening Ceremony from Vancouver, two hours south of here.

At the other end, at the base of a giant set of Olympic rings, a candle-and-flowers memorial was taking root.

The memorial was for 21-year-old luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of the Republic of Georgia, killed in a grotesque training accident Friday morning on a track many, including competitors, feared was dangerously fast.

The fatality was just the third at a Winter Olympics -- the first two taking place at the 1964 Innsbruck Games, where Australian alpine skier Ross Milne and British luge slider Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski both died during training prior to the Games.

On Friday, Kumaritashvili was killed when he flew off his sled and out of the track, hitting a steel or aluminum support pole while training for the men's singles competition, set to begin at 5 p.m. Saturday.

The accident was so gruesome that video of it was taken down from YouTube not long after posting, and issued a "graphic content" warning on its website.

As of late Friday, no announcement had been made whether the first two runs of men's singles luge will be held Saturday evening.  Not long after the accident, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had barricaded off the run pending an investigation, and the International Olympic Committee and international luge federation are running probes of their own.

It was a shocking start to what was supposed to be the beginning of Canada's starring role in a 17-day festival of winter sports. Instead, its Games are starting in tragic circumstances.

"No one wanted the Olympics to start this way," said John Rosen, U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation president who is a volunteer course official here. "It's just horrible."

I spent a few hours interviewing shaken and somber luge officials at the track, a short tram ride from the bottom of Whistler/Blackcomb Mountain.

While walking back to the village down below, I happened upon a medical worker who had been at the scene. He suspected Kumaritashvili had been killed instantly. He had no pulse when we got to him, the worker said.

As he spoke, a band on stage in Village Square belted out the sing-along song, "Sweet Caroline." It was just hours after the accident, and the news had yet to filter down to the village.

A young athlete had lost his life getting ready to compete in the Olympics. Nothing sweet about that. Just tragic and sad and scary, to know that these competitors -- ski jumpers, skiers, freestyle aerialists, bobsledders -- can die in pursuit of a medal.

And still, the show goes on.

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