World Cup luge to return to crash-marred Whistler

May 19 2011 - 6:31pm

The sliding track that hosted the crash-marred 2010 Vancouver Olympics may soon have new start ramps in an attempt to make the treacherous course more safe.

The International Luge Federation will host a World Cup race later this year at the Whistler Sliding Center as planned, the first time an elite international field will race there since the Olympics. Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed and died on the Whistler ice hours before those games opened, casting an enormous pall over the competition and raising many safety questions.

By early June, Canadian officials are expected to decide if building new starts farther down the track are an answer.

"We are awaiting their response," FIL secretary general Svein Romstad wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

Either way, a World Cup will be held in Whistler on Dec. 9-10. What remains unclear is if luge races that weekend will begin from the hastily lowered Olympic starts -- which many athletes vehemently opposed using even after Kumaritashvili's death -- or new ramps built into the concrete chute.

Starting around Nov. 29, athletes will have the chance for a full week of additional training in Whistler before the World Cup stop, something that doesn't regularly happen at many venues on the circuit.

"As there have already been several changes implemented in Whistler, we decided to add a training week so athletes can adjust," Romstad wrote.

USA Luge, which urged Canadian officials to allow international sliders to have more training time at the Whistler track leading up to the Vancouver Games, applauded that move.

"Having an extra week of training for our athletes on such a challenging track is always appreciated," USA Luge CEO Ron Rossi said.

It's common for newly built tracks, like the one in Whistler, to be modified after opening. Some curve shapes on the lower portion of the Whistler course have been slightly altered already, but taking a major step like building new ramps would be highly unusual.

The Olympic course was shortened after Kumaritashvili's death in an effort to keep speeds down, with male racers beginning from what was to have been the women's start, and female Olympians starting farther down the track at the junior start position. Some racers said they did not have enough time to figure out the new starts, including 2009 world champion Erin Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y., who was 16th at the Olympics.

The FIL held testing at the Whistler track in March and made recommendations to Canadian officials about where to have men's, women's and doubles starts in the future, though no decision is expected until late May or early June. Rossi said "it is expected" that male racers and doubles teams will have new starting points in Whistler going forward.

If new ramps are built, athletes may essentially have to relearn just about everything about how to slide on the Whistler track. That would make the additional training week even more vital.

"We will proceed with the World Cup next (season)," Romstad wrote. "We just have to see if they will be from new starts or the Olympic starts."

Kumaritashvili was on a training run Feb. 12, 2010, when he lost control of the sled in one of the final turns. He crashed into a track wall, was thrown from his sled, sailed over the side of the concrete chute and into a steel support beam at 89.4 mph, dying on impact from massive head trauma. When the track reopened the next day, the wall that Kumaritashvili went over had been raised.

Many Olympic luge athletes crashed either in competition or training during those Olympics. Some required hospitalization for concussions, and many openly questioned the track's safety.

Whistler is scheduled to host luge's world championships in 2013.

"The additional week will also give our younger athletes, many of whom have never been to Whistler, an opportunity to learn the track's nuances," Rossi said.

The 2011-12 World Cup season opens on Nov. 26 at Igls, Austria. There is no World Cup luge race scheduled in the United States this season, though the site for the Dec. 17-18 competition remains undetermined. It likely will go to either Calgary, Alberta, or the 2002 Olympic track in Park City, Utah.

 

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