WHISTLER, British Columbia - Germany's Felix Loch, speeding safely through the final curve where a fellow Olympian died only two days earlier, won a gold medal Sunday and brought brief but needed comfort to a sport rocked by criticism that it put performance above protection of its athletes.

Loch finished his four heats in 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds, well ahead of teammate David Moeller (3:13.764) and Italy's Armin Zoeggeler (3:14.375), the two-time defending Olympic champion.

Officials, under pressure after 21-year-old Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a practice crash Friday, shortened the track by moving the starts down the mountain. The alteration worked to slow the sleds, but the changes may have tilted the balance of competition.

American Tony Benshoof, who finished eighth, respected the decision, but that didn't mean he liked it. "If we had started from the top, the race would have been totally different," he said. "As soon as they moved the start down, they basically gave two medals to the Germans."

Loch, 20, returned Germany to luge's summit by dethroning Zoeggeler, who was attempting to match German Georg Hackl's record of winning gold in three straight Olympic Games.

"It's going to be tough to knock that guy [Loch] off," Canada's Ian Cockerline said. "If he can maintain this, he could be on top for a long time."

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Loch, already a two-time world champion, is the youngest luge Olympic gold medalist in history.

Women upset with course

Top women lugers are upset with the decision to begin racing from a lower spot on the Olympic track, a switch made to limit speeds following the death of Kumaritashvili.

"It's not fun," German gold-medal hopeful Natalie Geisenberger said, adding that the course now essentially seems like one built for children. "It's for all the same. But I'm not happy. It's not for ladies. It's a kinder start."