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Athletes, coaches aware of increasing speeds and danger

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The death of Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili after a horrendous training accident adds fuel to the growing debate over whether the continued stretching of boundaries in speed and extreme sports has begun to outstrip the safety measures that have long been in place.

The continual addition of daredevil extreme sports to the Olympic program, combined with technological and physical advancements that push the limits of speed in more traditional winter pursuits, have made the Winter Games an increasingly high-flying circus of terrifying rides, uncontrolled speeds and, in some cases, pure danger.

The focus of this issue now is squarely on Vancouver's new bobsled, luge and skeleton track, completed late in 2007 for $100 million and considered the fastest in the world and the most prone to crashes.

"It's a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl said before learning of the death, clearly shaken after seeing Kumaritashvili tended to furiously by medical workers.

Shortly before the accident, Hackl said he didn't believe the track was unsafe. "People have the opinion it is dangerous,'' he said, "but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe. My opinion is that it's not any more dangerous than anywhere else."

Five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette, chosen as the U.S. team's flag bearer, said the speeds on the track are pushing the boundaries of safety.

"We're probably getting close," he said Thursday. "This track is fast and you definitely have to be on your game . . . So it's definitely something they are going to have to take into account on future tracks."

American luger Christian Niccum crashed during a World Cup event in Whistler last year. "When I hit that ice going 90 mph, it turns into fire," Niccum said Thursday. "I remember coming around to the finish and I just wanted to rip off my suit - 'I'm on fire! I'm on fire!' "

Winter sports competitions have always brought athletes, high speeds and snow and ice together, occasionally with horrifying or fatal results. More than a half-dozen professional skiers or snowboarders have died after accidents on courses, most recently Austria's Gernot Reinstadler in 1991 and Ulrike Maier in 1994, France's Regine Cavagnoud in 2001 and Norwegian snowboarder Line Linde Ostvold in 2001. At least four people died on a bobsled track in Lake Placid, N.Y., between 1930-66 and others died on other tracks later. In 2001, Latvia's Girts Ostenieks was killed while riding headfirst on a sled in the sport of skeleton.

There have been three previous athlete deaths at the Olympic Games. Austrian Alpine skier Ross Milne died after running into a tree during a training run just before the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, and British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki also died in a training wreck there.

Swiss skier Nicholas Bochatay was killed after crashing into a snow- grooming machine during training for the demonstration sport of speed skiing at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France.

The Whistler track, however, is something new, and a bit frightening.

U.S. men's bobsled coach Brian Shimer, a five-time Olympian, said bobsleds will achieve speeds of 96 mph at the Whistler Sliding Centre, about 10 mph faster than during the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

"That's a huge jump," Shimer said Thursday. "This is pushing the envelope. Every Olympic medalist or world champion I can think of [who has competed on the track] has been on his head here. It's not a given that all you have got to do is push faster than everybody else down the track. You're definitely going to have the track against you as well."

The track, athletes say, is not only fast but also technically challenging.

"It is a dangerous track,'' bobsledder John Napier said, "and safety is in everybody's mind."

- The Washington Post and AP

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