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Five years after Vancouver 2010: Death of an athlete

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just hours before the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics shocked the world ahead of one of its biggest celebrations.

Hurtling down the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre at a speed of over 140 km/h, Kumaritashvili flew off the track and into a support beam five years ago today.

“I was monitoring the torch relay through Vancouver on the morning of February 12, and seeing the protest happen, and heading downtown for that,” says freelance journalist Bob Mackin, recollecting the morning of the accident.

“That’s when I got the news bulletin and it was also going crazy on social media that the accident had happened up at the Whistler Sliding Centre.”

Before long, Mackin saw the crash for himself on YouTube, where another journalist had uploaded a video of the crash.

“That will be a story that will be attached to these Olympics forever,” Mackin says. “If athletes were getting harmed and were dying at every Olympics, that wouldn’t be a story. But all the athletes came and went from Beijing, from London, everyone who competed left — and other Olympics. This is something that hadn’t happened in a Winter Olympics at a sliding centre for about four decades. This was so unusual, and it was captured on live TV on closed circuit to any broadcaster that what wanted to carry it.

“And some broadcaster or some journalist had captured that and put it online for the world to see — those moments of a young athlete on his last training run. That hit me in the stomach, like so many people.”

After Kumaritashvili smashed into the support beam, medical staff responded rapidly with CPR. Mackin details that incident in depth in his book Red Mittens and Red Ink: The Real Story of the Vancouver Olympics, noting the accident happened at 10:50 a.m., and by 11:49 a.m. health workers declared the athlete dead.

“The greatest regret I have was losing Nodar Kumaritashvili on the first day,” VANOC chief executive John Furlong told News1130 during a recent sit down interview in Yaletown, overlooking the Olympic Village. “It’s something you can never forget. It’s like losing your own child.”

The Whistler Sliding Centre (Courtesy whistlersportlegacies.com)
The Whistler Sliding Centre (Courtesy whistlersportlegacies.com)

Kumaritashvili’s death brought into question Georgia’s participation in the games altogether. Indeed, the luger’s teammate Levan Gureshidize withdrew from the games to travel home for his friend’s funeral rather than participate.

As tragic as the accident was just hours before, the appearance of the Georgian team at the opening ceremonies that night in some ways represented everything the Olympics strives to be.

“That was a very poignant moment,” recalls Mackin. “When [his teammates] marched in their team uniforms, just a small group of them – when they entered the field of play area where the ceremonies were at BC Place, one by one, every section stood up with a standing ovation and clapped for them for staying in the games, for carrying the weight of their country on their shoulders.

“Even us, in the press tribunes — we don’t, as a rule, clap. But in this case, we had to join everyone else in the stadium in paying tribute to Nodar Kumaritashvili, and also to these athletes, and at least give them some Canadian goodwill – that we’re with you, and we’re sorry for what happened… those moments really bring the human element of the games out to you.”

Even now, questions linger over whether the luger’s death was preventable.

After Kumaritashivili’s death, the starting point for luge was moved forward to reduce speed, and padding was added to the beams near the finish line.

An investigation by the International Luge Federation (FIL) found the track did not contribute to his death.

“It was a terrible accident,” says Furlong. “If someone had said to me, these are all the things you could have done, obviously I would have been mortified that I hadn’t of done them. We were as determined as an organization as can be to provide world-class facilities, safe facilities, and to create the environment where we would really see the best of the best do amazing things.

“I don’t think any of us thought for a second that there was the potential for that.”

While the FIL’s report did not fault the track, a report from the BC Coroners service recommended that every luger involved in major competitions go through more extensive mandatory training.

News1130′s Martin MacMahon’s four-part series to mark the anniversary of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games will continue tomorrow.