Dynamic of luge event has changed

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- On the ice, the dynamic of the event has changed.

Off the ice, so has the mood.

Olympic luge competitors arrived Saturday and found a track they barely recognized.

The Canadians said their home-ice edge disappeared when the courses were shortened in response to the fatal crash of Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili on the final curve of a training run Friday. A top American luge official wondered if some changes were really in the racers' best interests.

One thing is clear: This Olympic luge competition is clearly unlike anything anyone expected.

"That home-track advantage? It's basically gone," Canadian women's luger Regan Lauscher said.

The changes by international luge officials are anything but cosmetic.

The most significant one involved starting men's, women's and doubles events from lower on the track than originally planned.

"They had to address it," said women's world champion Erin Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y.

Starting farther down the track means speeds will be lower, as proven by Saturday's training sessions, during which men were going 5 mph or more slower.

Accordingly, slower means safer.

And while no one disagreed with added safety measures like installing a wall along the final curve where Kumaritashvili crashed or reshaping the ice along that turn to help sleds stay where they're supposed to be, some lugers couldn't help but wonder if shortening the course was the ideal move.

"I'm conflicted because of obviously what happened." USA Luge CEO Ron Rossi said. "But as a competitor, I don't want to see us go down. I want to see us race from the top. The elite deserve to race from the hardest test. But we did see a Romanian girl get a concussion, and we have to take into account the quality of the field, from first to 30th. I think they made their decision with 30th place in mind, and given what happened here yesterday, I can't sit here and argue."

The International Luge Federation said the decisions about moving the the start ramps were made with grieving athletes in mind; slowing down the track was almost secondary.

Nonetheless, the game plan every slider brought to Whistler is now worthless. The men's track is now nearly 600 feet shorter than before, the women's and doubles course now 800 feet shorter. And for the women's and doubles sliders, what's now the first turn -- a very tight one not far from their start ramp -- could essentially decide the whole race.

"Getting in there is the tricky part. It slows you down," said Olympic rookie Megan Sweeney of Suffield, Conn. "Speed makes this sport easier, so slowing things down makes it harder to race."

Hamlin said she's hopeful for a return to some sort of normalcy -- and quickly.

"What I want people to know about luge is that it's not that scary," Hamlin said. "We're all paying our respects. We all know what happened. It's a small community. We lost a fellow athlete. But people need to realize that we're still here. We're still racing on this track and when they dwell on the tragedy ... they're making it harder for us."

Canadian luger Meaghan Simister said she expected the FIL to do what it did.

That doesn't mean she was thrilled with the changes.

"It certainly doesn't help me," Simister said. "I haven't taken one run from down there until today. I trained for two years from the ladies' start. The best part of luge for me is the start and that was ripped from my grasp.

"It's tough," she added, "but everyone has to do it."