Four years after the death of Georgia’s Nodar Kumaritashvili in Vancouver, Olympic lugers begin their Sochi campaigns at the weekend desperate to move on from the tragedy.
The 21-year-old Kumaritashvili was killed in training, smashing into a steel column, never realizing his dream of even getting just one competitive run under his belt.
He was the first athlete to die in Olympic training or competition since 1964 and it sparked a radical rethink of the design of the Sochi track.
It has been slowed down and will feature three uphill sections, putting firm brakes on what had been expected to be speeds of 160kph.
The luge in Sochi seems certain to be dominated by Germany.
In the men’s event, Felix Loch, who became the youngest ever luge gold medalist when he won in Vancouver as a 20-year-old, is the favorite to defend his title having also captured back-to-back world titles in 2012 and last year.
He also took the World Cup last month.
In the women’s race, Natalie Geisenberger, who was a bronze medalist in 2010, travels to Sochi fresh from her second straight World Cup win. She also took gold in singles and team relay at last year’s world and European championships.
The introduction of a mixed relay has raised eyebrows.
The relay consists of a men’s single luge, a women’s single and then a doubles run — which can be mixed or single gender.
“There have been some pretty heated discussions about the sexual aspects of luge,” International Luge Federation official Harro Esmarch said when the discipline was introduced. “Some people’s fantasies have no boundaries. In the past, the media have focused in on the sexual aspects and attacked us.”
The luge is also set to feature two of the event’s more unlikely competitors in the shape of Shiva Keshavan and Alex Ferlazzo.
It is to be Indian Keshavan’s fifth Olympics, although he is competing under an independent flag after the Indian Olympic Association was suspended by the International Olympic Committee.
“I remember feeling left out at the Nagano Olympics in 1998,” Keshavan said. “India does not follow winter sports, but suddenly the Jamaican team came up to me and said: ‘Hey, man, we’ve got to stick together.’”
Australian teenager Ferlazzo, who hails from the tropical city of Townsville, has to practice on a hill using a luge strapped to four wheels rather than steel runners.
So how did Ferlazzo learn his luge, the fastest and the most dangerous of the three Olympic sliding sports?
After his mother met Australian luge recruitment manager Karen Flynn at a pilates class and was pointed in the right direction, of course.
“It’s a long way from North Queensland to Russia, that’s for sure. It’s very exciting,” the 18-year-old said. “My mum met a retired athlete who used to do the luge through a pilates class and she got me into it.”