Georgian Luger Flies Off Track, Into Steel Pole and Dies Before Olympics Start

Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia Republic died after jumping track at 89 mph.

Feb. 12, 2010 — -- An Olympic luger crashed and died just hours before the opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics today after the sled he was riding flew off the track at nearly 90 mph and flung the athlete into a steel pole.

Nodar Kumaritashvili from the Republic of Georgia was training for the luge competition when the accident occured, just a few hours before the Vancouver Games were to begin, according to the International Olympic Committee.

The 21-year-old lost control of his sled near the finish of the track that is believed to be the fastest in the world.

A speed monitor on the track noted Kumaritashvili's speed as being 144.3 kilometers per hour, or 89.6 mph, at the time of the crash.

Ruben Gonzalez, a member of the Argentinian luge team who witnessed the crash, told ABC News Sports Radio, "Everybody gasped, a collective gasp, and I've been in the sport since '84, and I've never seen anybody fly out of a track before."

Gonzalez, who had trained with Kumaritashvili for the past two years, called Kumaritashvil "a solid guy," and said he was respected by his peers.

"He was having a good run and he just made a mistake at the last curve and just came out, hit a pole," he said.

"It was a pretty horrific accident," said ABC News' Michael Kriesel, who saw the video of the crash. The video has since been yanked from Internet sites like YouTube.

"He was sliding and it looked like it was a pretty good time into his practice session and he went flying over the wall into the air and then hit a post," said Kriesel. "When he hit the post he didn't really bounce off that much, he just stayed where he was and then officials came over and tended to him."

Rescue workers performed chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation less than a minute after the crash, and then quickly airlifted the luger to a trauma center in Whistler.

The head of Georgia's delegation, Irakly Japaridze, said in a press conference this afternoon that the country's team stay and compete in the Winter games despite the tragedy, according to ESPN.

"We are all in deep shock," Japaridze said. Kumaritashvili died just hours before the opening ceremony, which was dedicated to him and the seven remaining members of the Georgian delegation, who wore black armbands as they marched behind a black-trimmed flag. Most of the crowd rose to give respectful applause. There were also plans to lower the Olympic and Canadian flags to half staff.

More than 50,000 ticket-holders packed into the stadium for the evening extravaganza, the first Olympic opening or closing ceremony ever held indoors.

Luge Track at Winter Olympics Breathtakingly Fast

A joint statement from the International Olympic Committee, the Games' organizing committee VANOC and the International Luge Federation offered condolences to the luger's family.

"The whole Olympic family is struck by this tragedy, which clearly casts a shadow over these Games," said IOC President Jacques Rogge.

At a press conference late Friday, Rogge became emotional, taking off his glasses to wipe away his tears.

"Sorry it's a bit difficult to remain composed," said Rogge, adding that now is not the time to "talk about investigations."

Speaking for the International Luge Federation, President Josef Fendt called the accident, "The gravest thing that can happen in sport."

The statement also confirmed that there is an investigation underway into the circumstances of the accident and that training has since been suspended.

Even before Kumaritashvili's tragic accident there was criticism brewing of the high speeds the luge track allows athletes to reach. There was also question as to how the unusually warm temperatures may have impacted the safety of the luge tracks.

But Gonzalez said that despite what the critics say, the higher the temperature, the easier the track is on a luger beacuse the ice is "softer and easier to navigate." He added that he believes the real safety problem is the height of the wall on the side of the luge, which he says is not tall enough.

More than a dozen athletes have crashed during training runs here, including four Americans.

It was just a year ago, the International Luge Federation President said that the wooden protective devices near the track's curb are too short and that they needed to be lengthened to keep lugers from flying off the track.

"I agree one hundred percent," said Gonzalez about the President's comments, "My response is, why didn't they do it?"

An Australian athlete said late today, the track is too much. "To what extent are we just...crash test dummies?" asked luger Hannah Campbell-Pegg. "I mean, this is our lives."

Some of other lugers said that the breathtaking speed of the track surprised them when they first rode it.

"The track is super fast and I'll tell you, when I first got here it felt like a blur," said American luger Tony Benshoof. "It took me about 10 or 12 runs before it started slowing down in my mind."

Benshoof estimated that he and his fellow lugers will "hit 100 miles per hour during the race" which even the thrill-seeker admitted would be "very very fast."

"Pretty much from the top down you've got your hands full. There's a lot of really tricky corners," said Benshoof.

But American luger Erin Hamlin told ABC News Radio that speed is part of the sport.

"The reason we do this sport is to go fast," said Hamlin. "I think I can say that for everyone, and you've got to have the extreme factor in there sometimes. It keeps it interesting."

The Associated Press contributed to this report