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Published: Sunday, 2/14/2010

Modifications made to sliding track

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WHISTLER, B.C. - Someone had to be first, and it was Tony Benshoof.

Overlooking a labyrinth that claimed the life of one of his competitors a day earlier, Benshoof, the top U.S. medal hope in men's luge, drew a breath of mountain air, secured the visor over his face, and dropped down this elevator shaft of ice not knowing what to expect.

He glided to the bottom, slower but safer. And that's all that mattered.

The Olympic sliding track, slightly modified to make it less perilous and more than 5 mph slower for racers, reopened yesterday less than 24 hours after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrifying crash.

Late Friday, the International Luge Federation and Vancouver Olympic officials said their investigation showed the crash was the result of human error.

In a joint statement, they said Kumaritashvili was late coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate. "This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled, resulting in the tragic accident."

For Benshoof, there was no time to mourn.

"Unfortunately, there was a terrible tragedy," said Benshoof, a three-time Olympian. "But at the end of the day we have a competition to go through, and I tried to put it all out of my head."

Reminders of Kumaritashvili's death seemed everywhere - from the reconfigured final curve and raised wall, to the black tape stuck to the helmets of some athletes. Flowers were left near the turn where Kumaritashvili died.

Before Benshoof pushed down the starting ramp and cleanly navigated through the 16-turn course, luge officials announced the men's competition would begin at the women's start, a decision they hoped would reduce speeds and lessen the chance for accidents.

International Luge Federation officials said the start change for the men - three turns below normal - was made with the "emotional component" of athletes in mind following the death of the 21-year-old from the former Soviet republic.

It wasn't the only switch: Later, officials said the women's and doubles competitions will start even lower, at the junior start position, between the fifth and sixth curves.

The men began their two-day competition with two heats last night.

Kumaritashvili was nearing the finish line when he lost control of his sled, was propelled through the air, and slammed into an unpadded steel support pole at nearly 90 mph.

The spot where he lost his life looked very different on the first official day of the Vancouver Games as track officials had the exposed steel beams covered by a 12-foot-high wooden wall. Others were wrapped with padding.



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