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Vancouver's aggressive sliding track was redesigned following 2010's tragic accident. Photo:  Nancie Battaglia, NCPR Olympics correspondent
Vancouver's aggressive sliding track was redesigned following 2010's tragic accident. Photo: Nancie Battaglia, NCPR Olympics correspondent

Safety fears reshape Olympic sled sports

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In these final weeks before the Sochi Olympics, we're previewing many of the athletes and looking at some of the stories that could shape these Winter games.

Sled-racing will be one of the most exciting events at the Olympics, as bobsled, luge and skeleton racers rocket down a winding, ice-covered track.

But the competition this year will look very different from races at the 2010 games in Vancouver. Those games were marred by the death of one athlete and by numerous crashes.

The controversy in Vancouver is still sending shock waves through the sport.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Hold onto something, bite your teeth, close your eyes, do something, we're either going to make it or were not.
The debate over sled-racing safety is shaped by the fact that sliding sports are a little like NASCAR.  Tracks built all over the world — including the new one in Sochi — are really different.

“They all kind of have their own personalities," says Steve Holcomb, an American bobsledder who won a gold medal in the 4-man competition in Vancouver four years go.  "Each engineer is different, puts their own like mentality and mindset into designing it.”

The Vancouver track, located on a mountainside in nearby Whistler, was designed to revolutionize the sport, making it more aggressive, boosting top speeds from around 85 miles an hour to more than 95 miles an hour.

Justin Olsen, a gold-medal bobsledder who lives and trains in Lake Placid raced on Holcomb’s team in Vancouver, says every run in 2010 was about survival.

“Hold onto something, bite your teeth, close your eyes, do something, we’re either going to make it or were not," Olsen recalled.  "Most tracks you go through the most difficult portions early on.  Vancouver, just, you know, it just never lets up.”

John Morgan, a former bobsledder from Saranac Lake who now works as a sled racing analyst for sports networks, agrees that Vancouver's high-octane x-games edge was by design.

"Canadians wanted to build the biggest, baddest, fastest track ever and they did," he noted.

<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NodarKumaritashviliGEOpostalStamp.jpg">Postal Stamp of Georgia</a> - Slider Nodar Kumaritashvili from the Republic of Georgia died at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
Postal Stamp of Georgia - Slider Nodar Kumaritashvili from the Republic of Georgia died at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
Morgan says sled racing is inherently risky – danger is part of the sport.  His own brother died in a bobsled accident in Italy in the early Eighties.

But Morgan says there’s agreement now that for all but the top athletes, Vancouver’s track was TOO aggressive.

"It’s a great track for the elite top ten, fifteen athletes in each discipline, but it was too much for the what I call second level athlete that qualifies into the Olympic games," Morgan said.

The design sparked horror and controversy when an inexperienced young luge racer from the Republic of Georgia crashed on a training run."

"The violent death of 21 year old Nodar Kumaritashvili prompted Olympic organizers to reconfigure the luge competition," reported NPR's Howard Berkes in 2010, "raising to 12 feet the side wall the young Georgian catapulted over at 90 miles an hour into a steel pole."

Steve Holcomb, captain of America’s bobsled team, says fall-out from Vancouver also changed the way sledding sports will look on the new track in Sochi.

"Sochi, they were in the process of building it as Vancouver was taking place," he recalled.  "Sochi was supposed to be faster than Vancouver."

Before Kumaritashvili's death, the plan was for bobsleds in Sochi to hit speeds topping 100 miles an hour.  Holcomb says that escalation, that international one-upsmanship, was quickly scrapped.

A memorial for Nodar Kumaritashvili in the Olympic village in Vancouver in 2010. Photo: Nancie Battaglia, NCPR Olympics correspondent
A memorial for Nodar Kumaritashvili in the Olympic village in Vancouver in 2010. Photo: Nancie Battaglia, NCPR Olympics correspondent
"They told Sochi to tone it down a little bit.  So they actually had to change the design a little bit and put in three uphill sections to slow the sled down," said Holcomb.  "Not good for the spectators, probably – they like the crashes."  

So the Sochi track’s track design is extremely rare in sliding sports.  Most tracks don’t even have one uphill section, Sochi has three.

Justin Olsen says viewers won’t see as many wrecks, or the same kind of breakneck speed, but they will see sled drivers navigating incredibly complex twists and turns.

"There’s this one curve, you’re going uphill and into a curve that kind of peaks, then goes back down hill.  So you think about it, you're losing speed, losing speed, losing speed, then when you go into the turn and lose even more speed, but you have to time it coming out."

The Sochi track is so unique that American sledders worry it could give a huge home-court advantage go the Russians, who’ve had more time to practice on the course and perfect their runs.

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