WHISTLER Grave warnings over the safety of the lightning-quick Whistler Sliding Centre proved tragically prescient on Friday when an accident claimed the life of 21-year-old Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili.
A year after the president of the International Luge Federation (FIL) Josef Fendt expressed his fear that the track was dangerous Kumaritashvili lost control while negotiating the 16th and final bend and was launched over the lip of the track before colliding with an unpadded pillar at 90mph.
"We had planned it to be a maximum of 137kmh but it is about 20kmh faster," Fendt was quoted by the Daily Telegraph on Friday while last February at the first competitive event to be held at Whistler he told local newspaper The Province he thought the track was "dangerous".
"It's dangerous but the FIL has given the athletes who are not so good more training on this run," Fendt said.
All week the topic of conversation among luge, skeleton and bobsleigh athletes has been the speed and technical difficulty of the track which is acknowledged as the fastest in the world and Friday's tragic events have put a question mark over Saturday's opening men's singles.
As well as the difficulty of the track, the limited number of practice runs on the course allowed by the Canadians has also been a concern. While sliders from the host nation have enjoyed hundreds of runs, the likes of American veteran Tony Benshoof have had to make do with much fewer.
"The limited training makes it potentially dangerous but I think all the athletes have had sufficient training," Benshoof, who crashed and hurt his foot on Friday told reporters.
"I'm not surprised (The Canadians) they gave us the bare minimum ... It was frustrating but then you can't blame them, most countries would have done the same."
Benshoof also feared a crash like that which killed Kumaritashvili could happen.
"Some of these guys have only been sliding two or three years whereas I've been sliding since my 21st year, that's a big experience gap," he said. "It scares me every time I go down it. I think it's dangerous for the less experienced countries.
"I actually thought someone might get hurt in Turin but thankfully everybody walked away."
Thursday's training runs produced several crashes, including one which saw Romanian Violeta Stramaturaru briefly knocked unconscious, while Austria's Manuel Pfister underlined the track's extreme nature when he clocked 154kmh -- the fastest ever recorded speed by a luge slider.
"I think they are pushing it a little too much," Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg said after one training run in which she nearly came to grief. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives."
Canadian skeleton gold medal favourite Mellisa Hollingsworth also spoke this week about having to overcome her fear of the Whistler track after a series of high-speed crashes last March left her fearing that she could die.
While luge is a dangerous sport the challenges presented by Whistler are unique. The 1,400 metre track descends the equivalent of a 48-storey building through 16 corners with ominous nicknames such as 50-50 and Shiver.
The G-forces on sliders through the final series of corners are greater than those experienced by Formula One drivers.
"We are very close to the ceiling of how fast you can go," Benshoof said. "We're going faster and faster and it's going to get to a point where its just a little too much. It's getting pretty crazy!
Even the world's best sliders have found the course hard to handle. Double Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler crashed during his opening training run on Friday before walking stoney-faced past waiting journalists.
(Editing by Miles Evans;
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