A Lethal Luge Accident Still Questioned
With a new Olympic competition approaching, friends and family continue to seek answers and action after the 2010 death of the luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili.
To reach this tiny skiing village, carved into the north side of the Trialeti mountain range, one must weave through a long progression of switchbacks rising more than a mile above sea level. When it is snowing — which is often — the trip from the capital city of Tbilisi can take nearly three hours.
Dodo Kumaritashvili makes the journey back and forth almost every week. Her daughter has a baby girl, and so Dodo goes to Tbilisi to help take care of her granddaughter. Upon returning home one weekend recently, Dodo entered her house and called out, “I’m home, son.” Then she began cooking.
Dodo’s son, Nodar, has been dead for four years. But she makes food for him every day, usually fruit or cake or meat but never soup, not even on the coldest days. Her son hated soup. When she finishes cooking, she brings the food into her son’s room and sits among the photographs and trophies and posters on the walls. After a few hours, she clears the food away and gives it to children who live nearby.
Nodar Kumaritashvili died at 21 in a luge crash on the eve of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It was a tragedy that stunned the sports world — he was the first athlete to die in Olympic training or competition since 1964 — and the accident compelled organizers for this month’s Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to re-evaluate the design of their luge track. The Sochi track, which will hold its first competition on Saturday, is intentionally slower, with an unprecedented three uphill sections.
Although the accident made headlines four years ago, Kumaritashvili’s death did not, by any palpable measure, linger. Dismay over the loss of a relatively anonymous athlete was quickly hushed by Olympic officials, who wanted viewers to turn their attention back to the Games. The luge competition continued on schedule.
Here, though, it is as if time stopped. On a recent Sunday, Dodo Kumaritashvili sat outside her son’s room and peered through a crack in the door. The room was quiet. The house was still. “I have not slept since that night,” she said. “I can’t. They give me pills, even now. I still cannot fall asleep on my own.”
In the four years since her son died, Dodo has tried to kill herself twice. Once, she said, she got out of bed in the middle of a sleepless night and simply walked outside into the freezing darkness. She did not stop for shoes or a coat. “I was just going to walk until I died,” she said. Another time, in Tbilisi, she tried to open a car door and jump out while the vehicle was moving. At first, she said, she was angry that she did not succeed in her suicide attempts; now she simply accepts her fate.
“There is no second, no minute, where I can escape this tragedy,” she said. “Not even 1 percent remains of the person I was. I force myself to smile, to behave — but whenever something happens that is good, I come back and tell the story to Nodar. To my son.
That night, there was a moment of silence for Kumaritashvili at the opening ceremony. There was a standing ovation for the Georgian delegation when it walked into the arena.
Luge in the Blood
Four years later, on that Sunday in December, Gureshidze began his morning by doing the typical chores around his family’s house. He cleaned up the living area, poked the logs in the fire and helped his mother prepare for any guests who might be arriving. The Gureshidzes’ house, like the Kumaritashvilis’ and many others in Bakuriani, has guest rooms for tourists who come to ski.
When the snowfall picked up, Gureshidze went inside and took out his computer. He looked at old photographs of himself and Kumaritashvili participating in a youth luge tournament, getting ready to leave for Vancouver, laughing.
“We were friends since we were 2,” Gureshidze said. “Kindergarten, primary school — the same classes and then, later, the same sport.”
Kumaritashvili was always more boisterous, Gureshidze more reserved. When they were teenagers, Gureshidze and Kumaritashvili gave skiing lessons on the mountain. One day, they saw a group of girls giggling together, and Kumaritashvili wanted to go and flirt. He and Gureshidze talked briefly about what they should say, and then Kumaritashvili glided right over and, pointing to the skis the girls had rented, said: “Oh, girls, those skis are so old. Come with us, and we’ll get you some nice new skis.”
A Question of Blame
Of the three Olympic sliding sports — luge, bobsled and skeleton — luge is generally considered the most dangerous. Riders lie back on their sleds and zoom down icy tracks while peering through the space between their feet. To steer, they shift the runners of the sled with their legs or shoulders.
Generally, speeds are 80 to 90 miles per hour. Crashes are not uncommon, but according to luge’s governing body, which is known by its French acronym, FIL, the crash rate for Whistler’s track was in line with other tracks around the world. In the three years before the 2010 Olympics, there were 203 crashes there over more than 30,000 runs in luge, bobsled and skeleton, FIL said.
Still, the track at Whistler was different. Speeds were higher among all riders and, at least anecdotally, the chance of a serious crash seemed greater. Armin Zoeggeler, the Italian legend who has won two Olympic gold medals, had a rare crash on the same day as Kumaritashvili’s accident. A female luger from Romania had a bad crash two days earlier and was knocked unconscious.
According to the report, Kumaritashvili committed “driving errors” that led to his sled’s catapulting out of control. Generally, when a luge hits a wall, it either breaks or pushes the rider toward the opposite wall. In either situation, the rider stays inside the track. In Kumaritashvili’s case, however, he flew out of the track and slammed into a metal support pole. The cause of his death, according the coroner, was “multiple blunt force injuries” after a “collision with fixed structures.”
Kumaritashvili was buried at Holy Christmas Church in the center of Bakuriani. His grave is behind the church beneath a stone memorial that depicts him on a luge below the Olympic rings. The grave is surrounded by flimsy wire fencing, and pigs and cattle sometimes walk over it on their way through the village.
Kumaritashvili’s family said they were told the Georgian government would help protect the marker, by building a more permanent barrier or by completing an expansion of the church property. Neither has happened.
“It takes so long,” Gureshidze said. “Everything takes so long.”