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Luge course altered, safety measures installed

WHISTLER, British Columbia - Someone had to be first, and it was Tony Benshoof.

Overlooking a labyrinth that claimed the life of one of his competitors a day earlier, Benshoof, the top U.S. medal hope in men's luge, drew a breath of mountain air, secured the visor over his face and dropped down this elevator shaft of ice not knowing what to expect.

He glided to the bottom, slower but safer. And that's all that mattered.

The Olympic sliding track, slightly modified to make it less perilous and more than 5 mph slower for racers, reopened Saturday less than 24 hours after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrifying crash not likely to be forgotten by anyone who witnessed it on Blackcomb Mountain or on television.

For Benshoof, there was no time to mourn.

"Unfortunately, there was a terrible tragedy," said Benshoof, a three-time Olympian competing with at least three herniated discs, plus an aching foot from a brush with the Whistler track wall Friday. "But at the end of the day, we have a competition to go through and I tried to put it all out of my head."

That was almost impossible.

Reminders of Kumaritashvili's death seemed everywhere - from the reconfigured final curve, raised wall and padded supported beams, to the black tape stuck to the helmets of some athletes.

Flowers were left by the base of a steel beam that he struck near the 16th turn. There was also a card with the inscription, "Just like gold, your dream will live forever." A moment of silence was held before the first heat of the men's competition in memory of Kumaritashvili.

Kumaritashvili's teammate, Levan Gureshidze, did not race. He was on the official start list for the first heat but withdrew.

Before Benshoof pushed down the starting ramp and cleanly navigated through the 16-turn course, luge officials announced the men would begin at the women's start, a decision they hoped would reduce speeds and lessen the chance for accidents.

International Luge Federation officials said the start change for the men - three turns below normal - was made with the "emotional component" of athletes in mind following the death of the 21-year-old from the former Soviet republic.

It wasn't the only switch: Later, officials said the women's and doubles competitions will start even lower, at the junior start position, between the fifth and sixth curves.

The men began their two-day competition with a clean first heat, with all 38 racers completing their runs.

Kumaritashvili was nearing the finish line of his sixth practice run and a day away from competing in his first Olympics when he lost control of his sled in turn 16, was propelled through the air and slammed into an unpadded steel support pole at nearly 90 mph.

The spot where he lost his life looked very different on the first official day of the Vancouver Games as track officials, following an investigation and concern about the track's safety, had the exposed steel beams covered by a 12-foot-high wooden wall. Others were wrapped with padding.

The contour of the final, sweeping turn, nicknamed "Thunderbird" was also changed as workers shaved the thick ice to stop racers from drifting too high onto the curved walls, increasing their chances of crashing.

While all the changes satisfied IOC officials, they also seemed to be a concession by luge's governing body and Vancouver organizers that the $110-million track, built to be the world's fastest, was beyond what some competitors could handle.

"We never said it is too fast," FIL president Josef Fendt said.

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