Whistler: A huge black cloud descended over the Vancouver Olympics on Friday after 21-year-old Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a horrific training crash at the Whistler Sliding Centre.
Kumaritashvili was making his final practice slide before Saturday's competition when he lost control at 90mph on the exit of the 16th corner and was launched over the rim of the track before crumpling into an unpadded pillar.
His sledge and smashed visor continued down the ice towards the finish line which was just metres away.
Medics performed emergency resuscitation at the scene before he was flown down the mountain by helicopter where he died in hospital. Ashen-faced course officials walked around in stunned silence as they waited for news.
"Unfortunately, he died," Georgian Olympic delegation head Irakly Japaridze told Reuters by telephone.
"We are all in deep shock, we don't know what to do. We don't know whether to take part in (today's) opening ceremony or even the Olympic Games themselves."
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Luge Federation (FIL) issued a joint statement confirming Kumaritashvili's death, the first during the Olympics since Swiss skier Nicholas Bochatay crashed into a snow-grooming machine at the Albertville Games in 1992.
"Our first thoughts are with the family, friends and colleagues of the athlete. The whole Olympic Family is struck by this tragedy which clearly casts a shadow over these Games," IOC president Jacques Rogge said in the statement.
"This is a terrible accident," added FIL president Josef Fendt. "This is the gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the luge family are naturally with those touched by the event."
Vancouver organising committee (VANOC) head John Furlong said he was stunned by the fatality on what should have been a joyous day for his staff.
"Nodar came to Canada with hopes and dreams that it would be a great moment in his life," he told a news conference. "He came to feel what it is like to be an Olympian. We are all heartbroken."
VANOC said later on Friday that the Olympic and Canadian flags would be lowered to half mast at the Opening Ceremony.
The Georgian National Olympic Committee (NOC) and its athletes said they would wear black stripes as they marched in.
They also planned to place a black patch on the Georgian flag that would be raised immediately following the parade of athletes.
Luge training was immediately suspended and there were doubts over whether the first two runs of the men's singles scheduled for Saturday would take place.
The IOC said investigations would be carried out into the circumstances of the crash while a teams' meeting was due to be held later on Friday.
Kumaritashvili, the son of Selix, the head of the Georgian Luge Federation, was competing at his first Olympics after racing in five World Cup events this year with little success.
His death was the first luge fatality in the Olympic Games since Briton Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski died during a training run in Innsbruck, Austria in 1964, the debut year for the sport in which athletes hurtle down the track feet first.
An FIL spokesman said that at a recent international training week at Whistler Sliding Centre, acknowledged as the fastest in the world, there had been 2,500 runs with only a three percent crash rate.
However, athletes have been remarking all week on the speed and technical difficulty of the 1,400 metre track which features corners nicknamed 50-50 and Shiver.
FIL spokesman Wolfgang Harder said on Thursday that future tracks would need to be slowed down to protect the safety of athletes.
"We are going to have to put speed limits in the next track which will be built for the Olympics," he said after Manuel Phister set the fastest recorded luge speed of 154kmh.
Friday's fatal accident occurred on the 16th corner, the final curve of a high-speed labyrinth that has proved treacherous even for the world's top lugers.
Earlier on Friday, double Olympic champion and gold medal favourite Armin Zoeggeler of Italy was caught out at the 11th corner and was flipped off his sled. A Romanian woman competitor was briefly knocked unconscious on Thursday.
Just a short while before Kumaritashvili's crash American Bengt Walden said even the FIL thought the track was too fast.
"I don't think they are going to build any more faster than this and I think the FIL were unhappy with how fast the track was allowed to be," he said.