Sochi's Olympic Luge Track: Slower, but Not Necessarily Safer

Officials blamed a luger's death in the 2010 games entirely on driver error. But some fear a design flaw in the course played a role—and that another accident could happen this year.
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The sled belonging to Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia sits empty on the track just after he crashed during a training run for the men's singles luge at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. (Michael Sohn / AP)

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi could see a world record or two broken, as the planet’s top athletes push each other to greater heights and faster speeds. However, one sport almost certainly won’t see any records fall this year at the Games: the luge. While many winter sports—like downhill skiiing, snowboarding, and speed skating—are getting faster, luge is the rare Olympic sport that’s getting slower. And that’s by design.

The luge track at Sochi, officially known as the Sanki Sliding Center, features an unusual design element for a sliding-sport venue: uphill sections. Most luge tracks don't have any rise in elevation along their courses, but Sochi has three uphill stretches.

The reason for the new feature is as straightforward as it is sobering: to protect lugers from potentially fatal accidents.

Sochi’s three uphill sections are likely a direct response to the death of a luger at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. During a practice run, 21-year-old Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled near the finish line at the Whistler Sliding Center, slid over the track wall, and collided with an unpadded steel support pole at 90 mph. He was quickly airlifted to a nearby hospital, but died of blunt force trauma to the base of his skull.

In the 2010 luge fatality, some lugers suspected that the design of the Whistler track played a role in the accident. The track had been designed for speed, and many lugers said it was the fastest they had ever experienced. In a training run at Whistler shortly before the games began, Manuel Pfister of Austria set a speed record with a luge run clocked at 154 km per hour (95.69 mph). Curve 16, where Kumaritashvili crashed, became known among some lugers as the "50-50 turn," because athletes were said to have a 50-50 chance of crashing.

In spite of questions about the track’s design, luge’s international governing body, known by its French acronym FIL, released a statement just 10 hours after Kumaritashvili’s death, blaming the accident on driver error. To some, the hurried response seemed defensive and not a little insensitive: According to FIL, Kumaritashvili failed to enter Curve 16 properly, leading him to lose control of his sled. “There was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track,” the statement concluded.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) then invoked its copyright protection on the video of the crash and had it removed from YouTube and other Internet sites. (The video has since resurfaced on YouTube, complete with the sickening clank of Kumaritashvili’s head hitting the steel pole.)

Even though luge’s governing body exonerated the track’s design, the Whistler track was immediately altered before the opening ceremonies in 2010. The ice surface was contoured to nudge sleds toward the center of the track, a wooden wall was erected just beyond Curve 16, and padding was placed on exposed metal support beams. Olympic officials said that the changes were "not for safety reasons but to accommodate the emotional state of the lugers." (Nevertheless, Kumaritashvili’s father, David, would later say that that an FIL official admitted to him that the accident was “their mistake, the track was not built correctly.”)

In April 2010, the IOC published a report on the accident. The report again pinned the blame on a steering error, but it conceded that luge speeds at Whistler exceeded those for which the track was originally designed. Engineering calculations had predicted a top speed of about 85 mph, but the highest speed recorded by a luger was nearly 96 mph. The sport’s international governing body felt that lugers were still able to handle this speed, but "this was not a direction the FIL would like to see the sport head."

This led designers to add the three uphill sections to the Sochi track. According to Terry Gudzowsky, president of ISCIBG Group—a consortium of companies that has designed sliding tracks for the last six Winter Olympics, including Sochi—the three uphill sections will moderate the lugers’ speed as well as add technical challenges. However, the other design guidelines handed down by the IOC for the sliding track remain the same as ever.

“There are similarities between Whistler and Sochi,” Gudzowsky says. “They’re both relatively steep and relatively narrow. But no two tracks are the same. All you can do is design within what Mother Nature gives you.”

Gudzowsky denies that the design of the Whistler track had anything to do with the 2010 Olympic fatality. “That was a pure accident,” he says flatly. “That’s been investigated, and everybody’s acknowledged that.”

But one engineering expert who has studied the 2010 accident extensively believes Kumaritashvili’s death was caused by a combination of excessive speed and flawed track design. Mont Hubbard, an emeritus professor at the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of California, Davis, has concluded that a small section of the Whistler track acted as a ramp that launched Kumaritashvili over the track wall. Hubbard published his findings in the journal Sports Engineering in 2013.

Hubbard used numerical modeling to show how Kumaritashvili’s luge could have been thrown out of the track. He concluded that the curved part of the track that connects the inside vertical wall and the track bottom, which he calls the fillet, was the likely culprit in the accident. The forces that were applied to the right runner of Kumaritashvili’s sled as it interacted with the rounded fillet provided very large vertical forces. Hubbard found that the fillet's curvature up the inside wall enabled a vertical velocity more than sufficient to clear the outside exit wall. (Photographs and diagrams of the Vancouver track and tracks like it can be viewed here.)

“The fact that he cleared the outer edge is a combination of this track design flaw and the high speeds,” says Hubbard.

Hubbard says that he isn’t sure whether the Sochi sliding track will be any safer. But he worries that it may still contain the same design flaws as Whistler.

“I don’t think that the entire safety issue should assumed to be solved by minimizing speed, “ he says. “The fillets are still there and they don’t need to be there. They’re there because the designer of the track keeps building them the same way.”

Kumaritashvili was not the first athlete to die at the Olympics. Seven have died at the modern Olympics while competing or practicing their sport, including four athletes at the Winter Olympics. In 1964, Austrian skier Ross Milne was killed in a collision in practice; Kamierz Kay-Skrzypeski, a Polish-born British luger died in a crash during practice in 1964 (the first year luge was an Olympic sport); and Swiss speed skier Nicholas Bochatay was killed after colliding with a snow machine in practice in 1992.

According to a 2010 Sports Illustrated story by Luke Winn, the Olympic committee responded to Kay-Skrzypeski’s death in Innsbruck, Austria, in much the same way as Kumaritashvili’s: by saying that the track wasn’t the problem. According to Winn,

they were talked into reinforcing the track with plywood walls, which kept a number of subsequent sliders from suffering a similar fate. [Luger Ray] Fales recalled that the coaches of Innsbruck’s weaker teams, who were most at risk, went to the Innsbruck organizers and said, “You’ve got to put a lip on top of the big curves, to keep people in, so if they make a mistake they don’t have to die.” It took support from the more powerful Swiss team to make it happen, and by 9 a.m. the next morning, the lip was nailed up.

Of course, danger is part of the attraction of all downhill sports. Shortly before the Sochi games began, training for women’s downhill skiiing was halted for more than an hour after skiiers complained that one jump was too steep. The occasional luge crash gives the sport a sense of peril—for the casual fan, luge is sort of NASCAR on ice. The Olympics haven’t been shy about selling the danger of luge to the public. Before the 2010 crash, Whistler Sliding Center marketers trumpeted their luge track as "vivid, violent, and rough” and “not for the faint of heart." But let’s hope the Sochi luge track is a little less vivid and violent.

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Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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