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Video: Expert: Track changes were essential

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    >>> in vancouver. the luge competition went on as scheduled over the weekend, in spite of friday's tragic death of a 21-year-old luge anywhere the republic of georgia. but questions remain about the track's safety and how the ioc handled the crash. nbc's peter alexander is at whistler with the very late earth. peter, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: good morning to you. the international luge federation had discussions reportedly even before this crash, about possibly implementing a speed limit of 85 miles per hour at future luge tracks. in the meantime, the olympic athletes here, the lugers, had very little time to mourn their loss. the officials wasted very little time reopening the track. even as they're still dogged by harsh new questions about whether enough was done to protect the athletes. felix loch captures the gold medal .

    >> reporter: with german felix loch capturing gold in the luge on sunday, the germans had reason to celebrate. but the international luge federation blamed the 21-year-old nodar kumaritashvili for the crash, saying there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track. that statement immediately sparked outrage.

    >> his death is not because of the mistake he made. people should be asking hard questions as to why this death occurred. and try to rectify it so that it never happens again.

    >> the loss is particularly painful in the young luger's native country , the republic of georgia.

    >> i don't claim to know all the technical details. but one thing i know for sure, that no sports mistakes is supposed to lead to his death.

    >> kumaritashvili's father, david, a three-time luge champion himself in the old soviet union , was too distraught to watch news coverage of the crash.

    >> translator: i haven't seen it and i don't want to see it, he explained. his son called just days earlier to say he was terrified of whistler's track, the world z fastest where lugers have reached speeds of 96 miles per hour. it led to a preseries competition changes at the track. including a new wall, pads for exposed steel poles and to reduce speeds, lower starting lines. since the tragedy, olympic officials have defended whistler's track as safe. but say the changes made it even safer. since friday's deadly accident, there have been 340 runs down the modified track. and not a single crash.

    >> we're very happy, we're totally confident. i think you saw the competition yesterday. everyone who started finished, got down, there were no accidents.

    >> reporter: and organizers for the winter games in 2012 have been told that the trend toward faster and faster tracks stops now. beginning tonight, the women lugers take their turn on the track, with the medals being handed out tomorrow.

    >> peter alexander , thank you very much. only a world-class luger can understand what it's like to be out on the track. nbc sports luger duncan kennedy competed in three luge events for the u.s. good morning to you.

    >> good morning.

    >> i want to start with something that peter mentioned in his report. the president of the international luge federation said the group's members prior to the accident had discussed limiting the speed of future luge tacks. do you think that a speed limit could have prevented this accident?

    >> well i feel you can have a very exciting race, you can build a more technically-challenging track with lower speeds. and you know, with these high speeds, physics takes on a new realm, if you will. and unfortunately, they found out the hard way.

    >> the international luge federation did release a statement after the luger's death, concluding that it was his fault, essentially for what happened. it was athlete error. and no indication that it was the fault of the deficiencies in terms of the track itself. but then it did make modifications. so it seems like a contradiction there, duncan.

    >> well, they absolutely did the right thing by building the wall up and moving the starts down. the actual track itself, the sliding surface, was in great shape for sure. the infrastructure around the track that in my mind, has been a concern for years. but again, we get back to these speeds and what it means when the sleds get out of control.

    >> well nodar kumaritashvili's dad told our nbc's stephanie gosk, that he had spoke to his son right before the race and his son said he was scared, the track was too fast. but he was in vancouver to go as fast as he could. is there too much pressure on these athletes to compete at unsafe speeds? are they doing things they really shouldn't be doing?

    >> well, for the majority of the field, it wasn't really too fast. but at the same time, you have to account for everyone in a sport like this, that's gravity-based. it's not like you can snowplow into the first corner and slow your speeds down. not that you can tell racers to slow down, anyway.

    >> how did the athletes who are competing on saturday and sunday feel about the changes? the modifications to the track?

    >> honestly? the majority of the racers are not pleased with the lowered starts. these are racers at heart. they want to go after it. they want to go full speed. and it is a technically-challenging track that a lot of people enjoy. but out of respect for what happened, and again, creating a safe environment and a safe race, it was essential.

    >> but will this change the future of the sport?

    >> i believe it will. there needs to be a cap on the speed. i mean it can't get faster and faster. and again, i feel that course design needs to maybe go towards more technically-challenging tracks. you can lower the speeds even down to 75 miles per hour. there's some tracks on the circuit that are about 70, 75 miles per hour that are actually much more difficult than this track. so i think that needs to be taken into consideration.

    >> all right. duncan kennedy , thank you so much for your insight.

    >>> and still ahead, a man

TODAY contributor
updated 2/15/2010 9:38:28 AM ET 2010-02-15T14:38:28

The Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger” should not apply to the luge anymore, not after a young Georgian athlete lost his life on the final curve of the Whistler Mountain Olympic run, former Olympic luger Duncan Kennedy said Monday.

“There needs to be a cap on the speed. It can’t get faster and faster,” the three-time Olympian and NBC luge analyst told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira.

Kennedy’s assessment agrees with that of the International Luge Federation, which has declared that luge runs cannot be made continually steeper and faster and has proposed a speed limit of about 85 mph (140 kph) on future tracks.

But Duncan goes even further. Future luge run designers, he said, need to concentrate more on technical difficulty and less on raw speed. If done right, the tracks don’t even have to go as fast as the new proposed speed limit of 85.

“You can lower the speeds even down to 75 mph,” Duncan said. “There are some tracks on the circuit that are about 70-75 mph that are actually much more difficult than this track. I think that needs to be taken into consideration.”

Lugers were hitting speeds of up to 96 mph on the Whistler run before Nodar Kumaritashvili, a first-time Olympian from the Republic of Georgia, was killed in a horrific training crash just hours before the opening ceremonies on Friday.

Image: luge crash
Peter Parks  /  AFP - Getty Images
Hours before the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Georgian luge hopeful Nodar Muaritashvili had a fatal crash during the men’s luge practice at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

Kumaritashvili, 21, lost control of his sled on the course’s final turn and flew off the track, crashing into an unpadded steel pillar. Just days before the accident, he had called his father, a former Soviet luge champion, and said the speeds on the Whistler run scared him.

The luge federation blamed the accident on athlete error. In a joint statement issued with VANOC, the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee, the federation said: “It appears after a routine run, the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16. This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident ... There was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.”

But after exonerating the track, the FIL then ordered a number of changes to it.

Organizers reconfigured the contours of the course’s final turn, installed a retaining wall at the place where Kumaritashvili lost his life, padded the remaining pillars, and moved the men’s start some 200 yards down the hill to the women’s start. The women were moved even further down to the junior’s start.

The changes have drastically altered the course. The men’s course lost a 90-foot vertical drop at the top of the course, making the section they start on much slower than what they practiced for and putting increased emphasis on starting technique.

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Women sliders are also angry at being moved down to the junior start, a location that has made starting technique less important.

“"It's not a ladies' start, it's a [child's] start," Germany's Natalie Geisenberger told reporters.

Catch the latest news, results, video from Vancouver exclusively on NBCOlympics.com

‘Racers at heart’
Duncan, the luge analyst, understands the lugers' frustrations as well as the changes made for safety reasons.

“The majority of the racers are not pleased with the lowered starts. These are racers at heart. They want to go after it. They want to go full speed,” Duncan said. “They absolutely did the right thing by building the wall up and moving the starts down ... Creating a safe environment, a safe race, was essential.”

Duncan is the first American to win a luge race on the international circuit. He was also the first American to finish a luge season as one of the world’s top sliders, finishing second in the season-long World Cup in both 1991-92 and 1993-94.

He pointed out that a problem in luge is that not every athlete is at the same skill level, and what’s perfectly comfortable for the top sliders may be dangerous to those who aren’t as technically proficient.

“For the majority of the field, It wasn’t really too fast,” Duncan said of the Whistler track. “At the same time, you have to account for everyone in a sport like this that’s gravity-based. It’s not like you can snow-plow into the first corner and slow your speeds down.”

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