Media report counters official explanation of luge death 

CBC investigation that airs Friday will suggest that accident report and safety audit overlooked “vertical velocity” in the death of Georgian Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO - SECOND OPINION A professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California in Davis has a new theory about the tragic death of 2010 Olympic luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili.
  • File photo
  • SECOND OPINION A professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California in Davis has a new theory about the tragic death of 2010 Olympic luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili.

An independent investigation into the death of Georgian Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the eve of the Olympic Games has raised questions about the official report and safety audit, and presents an alternate theory as to what happened that day.

The official story places part of the blame of Kumaritashvili’s sled, which should have broken after the 21-year-old luger came in high from the last corner and struck the opposite wall. Instead of breaking, the investigators suggest that the sled flexed and catapulted the young athlete out of the track, where he struck a pillar at 144km/h and was killed instantly. The report also looked at things like driver error and the fact that top speeds on the track — the luge record is 155km/h — are well above the 135km/h maximum speed that was projected when the track was built.

The official investigation and coroner’s report, which included the International Luge Federation, made several recommendations that resulted in a few safety improvements to the track. One of the recommendations was to have an independent safety audit completed for the track, which was completed in September 2012 and resulted in additional changes to the track as well as training and certification of athletes.

The independent investigation, which was conducted by Mont Hubbard, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California in Davis, suggests that design of the corner was responsible for the catapult effect and not an issue with Kumaritashvili’s sled. The results of Hubbard’s study will be presented this Friday on CBC on the fifth estate.

In a preview article at CBC.ca, Hubbard acknowledges that the sled did bend but didn’t snap back until after Kumaritashvili was on his trajectory out of the track. He says the real culprit was vertical velocity, or the angle of the rebound from high up on the curved wall, what he calls the “fillet” into the opposite wall — forces he says were great enough to bounce a luger off the track.

The safety audit, which was completed by the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and others, did not look at vertical velocity as a potential cause of the luge leaving the track — an omission that Hubbard says is strange.

“I waited for the FIL report to see what their explanation was going to be,” Hubbard told CBC. “When it was a non-explanation, in some sense, that’s when I decided to model the interaction of the luge with the fillet. Because the amazing thing is that this accident was on video, and you can’t not see that the right runner is interacting with the fillet, it’s right there in front of your eyes.”

Hubbard said the crucial moment was in the curve when Kumaritashvili’s sled began heading downwards.

“The forces that were applied to the right runner of the sled, early in the interaction with this rounded fillet, provided very large vertical forces,” said Hubbard.

The fifth estate investigative report comes on the eve of the Luge World Championships, which take place Feb. 1 and 2 at the Whistler Sliding Centre. All of the top athletes in the world will be on hand to race, chasing titles as well as locking down spots in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The report also looks into the death of Canadian ski cross competitor Nik Zoricic. The episode is scheduled to broadcast on television at 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18.

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