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Luge Competitor Dies Ahead Of Olympic Games

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

With the opening ceremony about to get under way, a horrific accident this afternoon at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. A men's luger from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia crashed during a training run and later died.

NPR's Howard Berkes is in Vancouver. Howard, this was just a ghastly crash on the sliding track up at Whistler. What happened?

HOWARD BERKES: Well, the slider, Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia was on a training run, was in the last turn of the track at the bottom of the track, so he was at maximum speed, estimated to be going about 89 miles an hour, when he lost control of the sled - the luge sled. Remember, he's on his back, face up, feet first on the luge sled, hits the sidewall. The sled sort of pivots upward and he is thrown off the sled, over the wall, right into a steel pylon that's right next to the track. His body hit it at full force. He was very close to it when he came out of the track. His body hit it at full force. It's a horrific video of it to see, and then just fell in sort of a heap at the base of that steel pylon. Emergency crews, you know, rushed to the scene, tried to revive him there, rushed him to a hospital and he was pronounced dead there.

BLOCK: This is said to be the fastest luge, bobsled and skeleton track in the world, it would seem, Howard, that would also make it the most dangerous track in the world and that seems to be what we saw today.

BERKES: There have been a number of injuries - much more minor, of course - on that track just this week during training. And there have been complaints of Luge Federation officials going back a year and more recently about this track. In fact, an Australian luge athlete yesterday said that with this track, they're sort of pushing things a little too far. And she referred to athletes who were going down that track as lemmings who were thrown down it like crash test dummies. This, of course, is going to be part of the investigation now. Is this track built so that it is too difficult, it's too steep, too fast and does it not have enough protection when athletes are thrown from their sleds? Most tracks are built in such a way that if a sled starts to head out of the track there's something that keeps it in, and the athletes are supposed to be held in with walls or barriers so that they don't fly out of the track as well.

BLOCK: Well, what has the reaction been today after this fatal accident from the Georgian Olympic team and the Olympic organizers in Vancouver?

BERKES: The minister of Culture and Sports Georgia, Nikoloz Rurura, addressed reporters and he noted that the Georgian team will continue to compete at the Games.

Mr. NIKOLOZ RURURA (Minister of Culture and Sports, Georgia): Our sportsmen and our athletes decided to be loyal of Olympic Games and they will compete and dedicate their performance.

BERKES: They will dedicate the performance to their fallen comrade, he said. They will wear black stripes on their hands, the Georgian flag will have a black stripe. The International Olympic Committee said it's too early to focus on who might be to blame, but there is an investigation under way. And they said as soon as they the results of that investigation, they'll decide whether the luge events will continue in the Olympics beginning tomorrow.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Howard Berkes in Vancouver talking about the deadly accident today that killed a luger from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Howard, thank you.

BERKES: You're welcome, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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