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.'''