“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.