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Luge expert: 75 mph fast enough for tracks

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.

Peter Parks / AFP
Georgian luge hopeful Nodar Muaritashvili crashes during the men's Luge practise at the Whistler Sliding Centre, in preparation for the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 12, 2010. Muaritashvili suffered a horror crash after flying off the Olympic track during his second of two training runs, reports said. He was immediately placed on a stretcher before he was taken away in an ambulance while an air ambulance was also on its way, the Globe and Mail said. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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.

‘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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