WHISTLER, B.C. -
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili has died in a horrific Olympic training run on the eve of the Games opening, flying off a high-speed track that has wasted little time showing its teeth.
The 21-year-old lost control of his sled near the finish Friday, went over the track wall and rocketed into a support pole near the finish line at the Whistler Sliding Centre.
The Georgian was coming around the final 270-degree turn on the lightning-fast course, where top sliders have exceeded 145 km/h, when he flipped off his sled and was hurled like a missile into one of the thick metal pillars that supports the canopy above the finish area.
The slider, a blur in his black-and-blue racing suit and white helmet went high in the corner, banking left. His sled swooped out from under him, hit the inside wall and the Georgian flew through the air, turning backwards as he launched into the square support stanchion lining the outside of the track.
There was a collective gasp on the finish dock from officials and athletes as the crash was beamed on the large-screen TVs.
The screens were immediately turned off as crews raced down the track to the stricken racer.
The track is considered the fastest in the world. For some athletes, it's too fast.
The luge competition was scheduled to begin Saturday. There was no immediate word if the men's singles event would be postponed.
Kumaritashvili, a relatively inexperienced luger, had competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings.
It was Kumaritashvili's second crash during training for the Vancouver Games. He also failed to finish his second of six practice runs.
The shocking crash cast a pall on the Games, which had been gearing up for a worldwide opening ceremony celebration to be beamed live from B.C. Place. Instead top officials found themselves offering condolences.
In a statement, the IOC confirmed the death "with great regret," saying "doctors were unable to revive the athlete, who died in hospital."
"Our first thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues of the athlete. The whole Olympic family is struck by this tragedy which clearly casts a shadow over these Games," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
Added VANOC CEO John Furlong: "We are deeply struck by this tragedy and join the IOC in extending our condolences to the family, friends and teammates of the athlete, who came to Vancouver to follow his Olympic dream."
VANOC officials issued a release saying an investigation was taking place to "ensure a safe field of play." Training was cancelled and members of the International Luge Federation were called for a briefing with team captains from each nation asked to attend a meeting.
"This is a terrible accident," said Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation. "This is the very gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the luge family, are naturally with those touched by this event."
Medics were seen performing mouth to mouth on the Georgian, his helmet still on, face up on the cement beside the track and the ambulance. Track officials then ordered all bystanders away.
Medics administered CPR to a bloodied Kumaritashvili before he was lifted into an ambulance. An air-rescue helicopter arrived some eight minutes after the crash. The slider was taken to a medical facility at the athletes village south of Whistler.
Video of the crash was soon posted on YouTube - and pulled down for TV rights violation.
At the finish area, not far from the crash, athletes, coaches and officials awaited word on Kumaritashvili. Then they heard the worst.
"This is the first time we've seen this. It's very sad," said Canadian luge team coach Wolfgang Staudinger, adding he planned to meet with his team to discuss what happened.
The $105-million sliding centre, on the southeast face of Blackcomb Mountain, has been billed as a wild ride and the accident happened at its fastest point.
The 1,450-metre course has 16 turns and drops steeply for 152 metres, the longest drop of any track in the world.
The average grade is about 11 per cent.