VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Organizers shortened the world’s fastest luge track for safety on Saturday after a crash killed a Georgian Olympian, as Swiss ski jumper Simon Ammann won the first gold medal at a Games plagued by warm, wet weather.
The Olympic men’s luge competition at the Whistler Sliding Center was running from the lower women’s start as an added precaution after the death of 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili in a harrowing crash on Friday.
Luge Organizers also raised the walls at curve 16 exit where the first-time Olympian died and changed the ice profile as preventative measures, despite concluding there was no indication the accident was caused by a deficiency in the track.
Away from the luge, warm weather and a wet snow forced the delay of Alpine skiing men’s downhill at the Winter Olympics -- and also helped delay host Canada’s hopes of ending a jinx that has barred it from winning gold in two previous Games on home soil -- Calgary and Montreal.
Scheduled for Saturday, the event was put off until Monday due to bad course conditions and poor weather, an International Ski Federation spokeswoman said.
Canada had hoped for a speed skating medal, but that title went to Dutch world champion Sven Kramer, who stormed to gold in the 5,000 metres.
The Dutchman brought much-needed joyous scenes to the Games when he vaulted the fencing in front of the crowd and embraced his ecstatic orange-clad entourage once his win was confirmed.
Switzerland’s Ammann won the first gold medal of the Games in the normal hill ski jumping. Slovakia’s Anastazia Kuzmina won gold in the women’s biathlon 7.5km sprint.
Freestyle skiing provided the day’s remaining hope for Canada to break its jinx through athlete Jenn Heil. Another gold was to be decided in the short track.
After Friday’s tragedy, the International Luge Federation (FIL) shortened the men’s luge to reassure shaken sliders. Adjustments were planned for women’s and doubles starts as well.
“The primary concern we have right now is the emotional aspect of it,” FIL secretary general Svein Romstad said at a charged news conference. At times he could barely speak.
Luge training resumed, but there were no major spills in morning training. The medals will be decided on Sunday.
The Whistler Sliding Center is acknowledged as the fastest in the world, although an FIL spokesman said on Friday there had been 2,500 runs with only a three percent crash rate.
Athletes had been remarking all week on the speed and technical difficulty of the 1,400 meter track, which features corners nicknamed 50-50 and Shiver.
But three-times Olympic champion Georg Hackl was quoted as saying on Saturday that a “tiny driving error” and not the speed of the track was to blame for Kumaritashvili’s death.
“At 60 kph he would have been dead too,” Hackl, the greatest luger of all time, told Berlin daily Tagesspiegel. “It’s a challenge for all athletes to master that track and they have made it, including the Georgian until that tiny driving error.”
The track changes prompted grumbling from at least one athlete that it was now too easy, and Canada’s coach said rules needed changing to bar inexperienced athletes from competing.
With the warm temperatures and rain, the opening weekend of Alpine skiing action at the Vancouver Games has been completely lost. Sunday’s scheduled women’s opener, the super-combined, was postponed to Thursday and Organizers said the downhill would be run on Monday.
Fortune appears to have eluded Vancouver Organizers thus far in the Games. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s lighting of the Olympic cauldron hit a glitch at Friday’s opening ceremony when equipment failed in the indoor venue.
Moments passed, the music continued to play and Gretzky and the other four torchbearers’ eyes shifted nervously as they awaited the cauldron’s arms to deploy.
Eventually three of the four arms emerged, the torchbearers lit the bases and the flames shot up and ignited the cauldron.
Editing by Miles Evans