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.
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.

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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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