Inside the Rings: Georgian luger’s last day

The ice was slick, quartz white and stony silent as Bjoern

Dyrdahl walked the length of the track that, within hours, would

become a chute of death.

The Norwegian’s pre-race inspection of the Whistler Sliding

Center took a half-hour. On their sleds, in their race for medals,

Olympic lugers would soon cover the same 1,374 meters in just 47

seconds.

Dyrdahl, a two-time Olympian in luge and now a top administrator

in the sport, looked for holes, bumps and other dangers. Alone, he

scrutinized the long, graceful but treacherous right-hand turn

named “Shiver.” He finished his top-to-bottom review on the last

of the 16 corners, a giant curved bank named “Thunderbird” that

resembles a Hawaiian wave frozen as it’s breaking.

Dyrdahl was satisfied that the world’s fastest track was ready

and that the Olympians whose lives depend on the safety assessments

of officials like him could slide.

“All we thought was, ‘We have a safe track; now we can start

the Olympics,”’ Dyrdahl would say later. “And that was a

mistake.”

Winter and speed were built into Nodar Kumaritashvili’s DNA. His

hometown, Bakuriani, is a ski resort in the Caucasus Mountains of

Georgia, the former Soviet republic that warred with Russia during

the last Olympics, in Beijing, in 2008. Kumaritashvili’s father,

David, was a luger. His uncle, Felix, coaches luge. Inevitably, the

son slid, too.

And he was good, good enough to qualify for the Vancouver

Olympics. At age 21, Kumaritashvili was still on the young side in

a sport where athletes often race into their 30s. But while his

uncle had voiced misgivings about the difficulty of Whistler’s

notoriously lightning-quick track, Kumaritashvili was determined to

tame it and do well.

“He was very excited to be here and to compete in the Olympic

Games,” says Rusiko Aptsiauri, a member of Georgia’s Olympic

delegation. “We could read from his face very well that he was

ready to compete and he was ready to use his skills.”

She, like many of Kumaritashvili’s fellow competitors, remembers

him as a quiet, reserved but elegantly polite young man. He fetched

her a glass of water when they had breakfast together on the

morning of his arrival in Vancouver, she said. Kumaritashvili’s

photo on the Olympics Web site shows a boyish face, with thick,

dark eyebrows and trimmed hair with a slightly scruffy fringe.

He phoned his father to say the track terrified him.

“He called me before the Olympics, three days ago, and he said,

‘Dad, I’m scared of one of the turns,’ “ David Kumaritashvili told

the Wall Street Journal.

In the last minutes of his life, before the crash that killed

him and cast a pall over an Olympics already troubled by un-wintery

weather, Kumaritashvili sat opposite French luger Thomas Girod in

the Whistler track’s changing room and squeezed into his skintight

suit. Canadian luger Jeff Christie bumped into Kumaritashvili in

the washroom. Indian Shiva Keshavan and Kumaritashvili wished each

other well.

“He was a lovely guy,” Keshavan says. “We just looked at each

other and said, ‘Have a good run.’ … If I had known that I

wouldn’t get a chance to speak to him after that, I would have told

him a lot of other things.”

Luge is the French word for sled. The sport is one of winter’s

oldest, with the first organized competition held in 1883 on a

naturally formed 4-kilometer run between Klosters and Davos in

Switzerland. In the parlance of the high-adrenaline modern version,

the world’s 16 artificial tracks are ‘driving’ – twisting,

technical, hard to negotiate – or ‘aerodynamic’ – where key to

winning is gliding on the ice and cutting through the air

smoothly.

Whistler, says U.S. team leader Fred Zimny, is both.

“I wouldn’t say less forgiving, no,” he says. “It just

requires an all-around athlete.”

The ice is more pampered than an heiress’ poodle. Before each

session, workers in non-slip boots with nails on their heels haul

thick yellow garden hoses and spray a fine mist of water. They use

broad, sharp blades on poles to scrape off any frozen drips and

lumps, and thick brooms to brush away flakes of frost.

Silver pipes as thick as basketballs run under the track and

carry ammonia that sucks away heat from the concrete walls, making

them cold enough to freeze and sustain the ice.

“Luge in track!” an announcer bellows as a competitor sets

off. The faint rumble of their approach, like a gathering summer

storm, builds quickly into the rattling, metallic roar of a

speeding train. They whizz past so fast that it’s hard for a

trackside spectator to turn his neck fast enough to keep them in

view.

Whistler’s $110 million track is much faster than luge officials

had expected, so fast that they want organizers of the next Winter

Games in Sochi, Russia, to make sure that theirs isn’t faster

still. Repeatedly, lugers clocked speeds exceeding 150 kilometers

or 93 mph at Whistler – far faster than cars are limited to on

highways around the world.

At such speeds, says Dyrdahl, lugers have no time to think and

must rely almost entirely on their reflexes to make course changes

or to correct a mistake.

“Sometimes if I make a mistake I’ll actually feel my heart go

from kind of its normal rhythm to just – bam! – fast,” says Ian

Cockerline who, as a Canadian luger, knows Whistler well.

Yet he misses the adrenaline buzz away from the track.

“You crave it.”

Wearing gloves with small spikes on their fingertips for extra

traction, Kumaritashvili pushed off furiously four times on the ice

to propel his sled decorated with a red-and-white Georgian flag on

his training run Friday.

Former Olympian Ioan Apostol, now a luge coach, was at turn 11,

considered key at Whistler because it is so demanding and sets

lugers up for the rest of their ride down to the bottom. He saw

Kumaritashvili zoom by there and says “he wasn’t so bad.”

A few turns and seconds later, Kumaritashvili was killed.

Turn 15, a downhill right-hander, funnels into “Thunderbird,”

the last turn, which is also right-handed but slightly uphill.

Together, they form almost a complete circle.

It was at the end of that dizzying curve, just past a blue

banner emblazoned with the Olympic rings and the motto “Des plus

brilliant exploits” – “Ever more brilliant exploits” – that

Kumaritashvili, traveling at 144 kph or 89 mph, slammed into the

top lip. The impact ricocheted him down the ice wall into the

opposite wall and then flipped him backward out of the track

entirely. He hit one of a series of metal girders that hold a

corrugated metal roof over the track.

Blood from Kumaritashvili’s head wounds trickled over the

fingers of Terrance Kosikar as the medic, firefighter and snow

patroller gave the luger mouth-to-mouth.

“I was just doing my job,” Kosikar would say later.

Another medic consoled Kumaritashvili’s uncle.

“He was pretty distraught, as any family member would be,” he

recalled. He would not give his name, saying he and the other

medics had been told not to talk about the crash.

Dyrdahl gathered up Kumaritashvili’s luge – “the sled wasn’t

damaged at all” – figuring that Canadian police would want it for

an investigation.

“My first thought,” he later said, “was, The impossible has

happened.”’