Who’s to Blame?

How efforts to be inclusive led to tragedy for one luger

Nicholas Kohler with Aaron Wherry and Nancy Macdonald

Who’s to Blame?Gregory Carigiet, a 22-year-old psychiatric nursing student from the Swiss canton of Grison, is an awfully good luger. Ranked 19th in the world this season, he was well ahead of 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian ranked 44th whose gruesome death during an Olympic training run last Friday focused so much attention on a sport—luge—that remains relatively obscure in North America. Yet the fact that Kumaritashvili made it to the Olympics, where he would have raced on the fastest and therefore arguably the most dangerous track in the world, while Carigiet did not, worries many in the sport. It suggests a deadly flaw in the way athletes are selected to compete on high-performance tracks.

“Georgia was—the irony is—lucky to qualify for the Games,” Wolfgang Staudinger, Canada’s luge coach, told Maclean’s. Thanks to an esoteric wrinkle in Switzerland’s Olympic qualifying process, Carigiet did not make his country’s cut for the men’s event, meant to gather the top 40 international sliders for competition at the Whistler Sliding Centre, which hits racers hard with a vertical drop of 152 m and can catapult them to record speeds of 153 km/h. “They left him at home,” says Staudinger. “That opened a spot in the top-40 field, and whoever was next—41st, 42nd and so on—basically, they moved up.”

Kumaritashvili benefited from a number of such top-40 omissions, permitting him a place in an elite group many believe he had no business competing in. And so, two hours before he was scheduled to board the bus for the opening ceremonies in Vancouver, he was on a training run at speeds exceeding 140 km/h when he made an error exiting turn 15. Slammed by the curve’s massive G-force, he attempted to compensate but flipped over, ricocheted off the track wall, and flew headfirst into a support pillar. It was the first fatal crash in luge competition in 35 years and the first Olympic death since 1992, when Swiss skier Nicolas Bochatay died on a training run in Albertville, France.

Captured in searing footage broadcast around the world, Kumaritashvili’s death appeared to confirm worries that Whistler’s sliding venue was dangerous. “The track is too fast,” Josef Fendt, president of the FIL, the sport’s governing body, reportedly told the Daily Telegraph. “We had planned it to be a maximum of 137 km/h but it is about 20 km/h faster. We think this is a planning mistake.” Then, at a tearful press conference Saturday morning, Fendt, his FIL colleague Svein Romstad and VANOC sports director Tim Gayda maintained the track was fast but safe, more or less laying blame for the accident on Kumaritashvili.

But it was the luge federation’s parallel moves—extending a retaining wall where Kumaritashvili was thrown from the track, subtly changing the ice contour at the turn and then, crucially, pushing the men’s launching point down to the women’s flatter, slower start—that really threw into question the safety of the Whistler Sliding Centre. Fendt said the modifications were being introduced “to deal with the emotional component of the athletes,” but then he reiterated previous comments that a speed limit on future tracks might be a good idea. On the issue of whether Kumaritashvili had died on a dangerous track, it all served to confuse, not enlighten.

Global outrage was loud and swift. Kumar­itashvili’s death caused some to wonder whether Canada’s $117-million Own the Podium program, designed to capture more medals, had unfairly limited training time to international sliders. The New York Times said yes, declaring: “In the end, safety took a back seat to patriotism.” Never mind that Whistler hosted a Luge World Cup last year and that VANOC, which is largely beholden to FIL in setting training times, frequently surpassed the minimum requirements for granting international athletes track time.

Though the lugers racing last weekend recognized FIL had to be seen to do something in the wake of Kumaritashvili’s crash, many were put off by the switch to the women’s start, which reduced speeds by 10 to 20 km/h. “We’ve been having a lot of runs with not really any problems and then this happened, which is so terrible,” said American Bengt Walden. “The track in Turin was worse off—anything bad happened at the bottom, you hurt yourself. And this just didn’t seem like this track had any of that.”

A growing feeling among luge-watchers suggests concerns over the track are premature, and that Kumaritashvili’s death had more to do with a misguided desire to keep the field open to all than with bad track design or Canada’s jealous control of the venue. There’s little doubt Kumaritashvili considered himself a serious competitor, going so far as to promise his parents he’d bring home a medal. But in the hours before his final run, Kumaritashvili admitted to his father he was frightened of one of the track’s curves. “I said, ‘Put your legs down on the ice to slow down,’ ” his father Dato, a former luger, said. “But he responded, ‘Dad, what kind of thing you are teaching me? I have come to the Olympics to try to win.’ His whole life he wanted to be an athlete, it was his dream to be at the Olympics. He told me, ‘I will either win or die.’ But that was youthful bravado. He couldn’t be seriously talking about death.”

THE PRESIDENT of the luge federation says speed limits may be a good idea in the futureKumaritashvili scraped his way into the Games, competing in his first four qualifying races to enter World Cup competition during the 2009-10 season but finishing no higher than 30th. Then, in Cesana, Italy, last month, he finally squeaked into a World Cup race, coming in 28th out of 32. The result was good enough to rank him 44th for the season, well back of the world’s top racers, but an improvement on his previous 55th-place ranking.

Though high-calibre lugers normally begin training by their early teens, the sport has a way of vaulting neophytes into the big leagues quickly. Ruben Gonzalez, who luges for Argentina but who has lived in the U.S. since he was six, first set his sights on the Olympics at 21; he competed in the Calgary Games four years later. “I went to the library and read books on all the summer sports but realized you had to be a super athlete,” he told a reporter. “Then I hit on the idea of luge—it seemed to fit because it overcame my lack of athleticism.” Gonzalez said he’ll retire after the Vancouver Games, at age 47; he came last.

Meanwhile, in November, Bruno Banani of the Pacific island of Tonga finished 41st in the Nations Cup Calgary after just a few months of training; only a slip-up at the Nations Cup in Koenigssee kept him from competing in the Vancouver Olympics. One press release praised Banani for “mastering” the Whistler track with no crashes. With all that, “we think we have to make the rules a little bit harder,” said Markus Prock, of the Austrian luge federation and a three-time Olympic luge medallist, adding that the FIL was poised to convene meetings on the issue.

Still, Kumaritashvili’s father rejects suggestions he was too inexperienced for Whistler. “He has passed through all stages of the World Cup and made it to the Olympics, he couldn’t have done that if he were an inexperienced athlete,” he said. “Anyone can make a mistake and break a leg or suffer some other injury. But to die?”

VANOC stats suggest, however, that the track has a good safety record. Of the over 30,000 luge, skeleton and bobsleigh runs there since 2007, only 340 resulted in sled turnovers requiring emergency medical response—barely over one per cent. Roger Jackson, CEO of Own the Podium, reiterated in an email that there had been “5,000 previous runs on the track without any serious injury.” And while the track was opened in January for an extra week of training for countries ranked lower than 30th, there is no record Kumaritashvili took part.

The impulse to widen the field stands in stark contrast to the drive to construct ever-faster tracks. Even U.S.A. Luge CEO Ron Rossi, who thinks there should be speed limits on tracks and fines for designers who exceed them, suggested that moving the men’s start was an FIL concession to the more feeble racers. “The competitive side of me wants to start at the top—our athletes are good and I want them to race that way,” he said, but added: “Given what happened, I think the FIL’s trying to make a decision with an entire field in mind”—in other words, not just those elite racers who can handle the men’s start.

As Canadian coach, Staudinger trained his athletes to drive competitively at speed, and bemoaned the switch to the women’s start. He said FIL made the decision with no consultation with teams and gave no opportunity for dissent; it alerted the athletes an hour before training on Saturday. “We were up at the men’s start waiting and they start taking benches out of the start house and we were kind of like, ‘Hey, where are you going with those?’ ” Canadian luger Ian Cockerline says. “We were calling up our coaches saying, ‘Don’t let this happen.’ ”

The shift fundamentally changed the race’s dynamic, giving the advantage to the Germans, who excel at achieving speed with strong pushes. Indeed, two Germans made the podium on Sunday, with gold going to 20-year-old Felix Loch, son of German coach Norbert Loch, silver to David Moeller. Canada did no better than seventh, an all-time high for the team, but still less than what could have been. “We were basically taken away our home-field advantage,” says Staudinger. “Yeah, I’m pissed off.”

“Our problem is not the track,” he added. “Our problem is the participants of exotic countries that think they can go and approach [luging] like tourists. It’s like when I go out and I want to go with Jacques Villeneuve on the racecourse in Montreal and do a Formula One Grand Prix—it’s not possible,” he says. “I’d probably kill myself.”