The Olympic luge competition started Saturday with a track—and an atmosphere—vastly different from four years ago.
In 2010, on a too-fast track that unnerved some of the best drivers in the world, 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed when he crashed near the finish curve, flying from the track into a steel post during a training run the morning before the Opening Ceremonies.
Even before his death, sliders and bobsledders in Vancouver were on edge during pre-Olympic training runs. The track had them leery about record-setting speeds ever since its completion two years before the Games.
During 2010 Olympic training, five-time Olympic luge medalist Armin Zoeggeler was among those who crashed. U.S. bobsled driver Steve Holcomb and his crew, the eventual gold medalists in the 4-man event, nicknamed one curve “50/50” because those were the chances of making it through upright.
In Sochi, the sliders have slowed down and that's been well-received by the athletes. The Sanki track has seen a couple minor accidents that did not result in any serious injury. There are no ominously named curves. No sliders are being airlifted to a hospital.
One crash was even notable for its positive outcome. Video of luger Shiva Keshavan’s training mishap went viral not because of an accident but because of a remarkable recovery (via Deadspin)—Keshavan fell off his sled, then somehow managed to flop back on it to finish as if the whole thing was planned. (He is from India, already famous for a pre-Olympic video showing him training on a wheeled luge sled barreling down a Himalayan mountain highway.)
But it’s slower in Sochi, for sure. And the funny thing is, among all these speed freaks, nobody is complaining.
“No, I don’t think the track in Sochi is boring,” said Christian Niccum, U.S. doubles slider, in an interview with Bleacher Report. “I don’t know when going 85 mph whipping around corners became boring for anyone.”
This Olympics, sliders are saying lots of good things about the track at Krasnaya Polyana. It’s not too fast. The curves are challenging but manageable.
“This is an amazing facility,” said U.S. luger Chris Mazdzer in a trackside interview with reporters. “I think that everybody loves this track. This is a great facility for competition. There’s nothing negative about this facility at all. Most people are feeling comfortable here.”
The Sochi track, largely constructed after Kumaritashvili's death, is a radically different design.
“They’re about as opposite as they can be," U.S. luger and one-time world champion Erin Hamlin said in a teleconference, talking about the two tracks. “The turns are bigger and not as tight.”
Completed with safety in mind, Sochi’s track is the only one on the World Cup tour with three uphill sections to slow luge, skeleton and bobsleds.
“It actually made the Sochi track more exciting,” said Niccum. “I do like going fast. That is for sure a huge reason for my passion in the sport.”
Don’t think it has turned into a Disney ride. The average speed from Whistler, where the Vancouver events were held, was 95 mph. In Krasnaya Polyana—the Sochi site—it is 85. That’s still pretty fast when you’re wearing a speed suit and laying on a bare-bones sled with no walls or brakes.
Maybe this represents some kind of tipping point where athletes—or at least some of them—agree that enough is enough.
At the Winter Olympics, Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger) seems to be as much a directive as a motto. Our menu of high-flying, dangerous sports keeps expanding and now includes more high-flying events like slopestyle and freestyle ski halfpipe this Games.
A luger died at the Olympics, and the track was adjusted to be slower. Yet there’s little indication other events will follow luge’s lead, even with recent disasters.
Ski halfpipe pioneer Sarah Burke helped get her sport into these Olympics. Yet Burke, participating in an exhibition event, died in a halfpipe crash before she could compete here. Snowboarder Kevin Pearce, on the cusp of a riveting rivalry with the sport’s superstar, Shaun White, suffered a life-altering head injury just before the 2010 Vancouver Games when he slammed his head on a halfpipe during training.
So in the past four years, two of the most prominent names in winter action sports—Burke and Pearce—crashed in a halfpipe with tragic consequences. Yet halfpipes haven’t been made smaller or less steep, because big air draws large audiences.
So these sports keep going bigger.
White took a lot of air out of the slopestyle event this week when he withdrew before the competition, saying he felt the course was dangerous. Gamesmanship or not—rivals said he backed out because he was scared to lose—evidence seemed to prove him right with several accidents, including a broken collarbone suffered by medal favorite Torstein Horgmo of Norway, sustained during training. Finnish rider Marika Enne was taken off the course with a concussion. These injuries forced officials to tame down the course before the men's final.
Jumps and tricks in events like freestyle moguls and aerials are getting more complex, needing more hang time. As thrilling as these events are, it’s hard not to feel an undercurrent of impending disaster, like that Whistler luge track from four years ago that was just too fast.
Even a few mph can make a difference.
“I tell you, hitting the ice at 90 mph with nothing but a helmet and a spandex type of suit can sting a little more then doing it at 75-80 mph,” Niccum said.
Athletes at the track want to put the 2010 death behind them. Slower and safer runs will help. For the sliding sports, at least.
"It is a tough thing,” said Mazdzer. “We are a close community. And when a tragedy like that happens, with such a small group of athletes, it definitely affects us. But I know right now we’re more looking forward.”
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