Crash concerns still dogging Olympic track 

Bobsledders are learning the Olympic sliding track is tough to tame, even for the world's best.

At least 11 two-man bobsleds have spilled sideways in the first two days of training at the Vancouver Games, with two athletes — including a legitimate gold-medal favorite — possibly knocked out of the competition before it even begins this weekend.

Spills are common in bobsledding, but since these topples come less than a week after the death of a Georgian men's luge athlete in a high-speed training wreck, speed and safety have once again been thrust into the forefront at the Olympic track.

Beat Hefti, this season's World Cup two-man overall champion, missed training Thursday with a headache after crashing on his first practice run the previous night. Hefti was checked out at a hospital for bruises on his head and body, as well as cuts on one of his legs, Switzerland team officials said in a release. He'll need medical clearance — plus clean runs on Friday — in order to race this weekend.

"His coach said he's going to train (Friday)," said International Federation of Bobsled and Tobogganing spokesman Don Krone.

Also Wednesday, Australian push athlete Duncan Harvey was briefly hospitalized complaining of sharp back pain after another crash, and doctors eventually decided to hold him out of Thursday's training for precautionary reasons.

Harvey was not seriously injured; he even walked the short distance back to the athletes' village from the medical center in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

"We room together and seeing him this morning was kind of nasty," said Chris Spring, the driver of the sled that wrecked with Harvey aboard, tossing both racers onto the ice as they sled kept skidding toward the bottom. "He's a tough guy. He'll be back out here, I'm sure."

Eight of the crashes came Wednesday, including one where a sled righted itself and finished on its runners. Another three came Thursday, with a Japanese sled skipping its second practice run after wrecking in the opening trip down the track.

Race officials said no serious injuries were reported Thursday.

Bobsledders and skeleton athletes use the same track where Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili suffered fatal injuries when he lost control of his luge sled and slammed into a trackside steel pole at nearly 90 mph.

Other than the speed, there's little comparison between the handling of a luge and a bobsled, but Kumaritashvili remains on the mind of every slider in Whistler.

"We're all family," USA-1 bobsled pilot Steven Holcomb said. "It's unnecessary. It's kind of a fluke thing. I know they were saying he's an inexperienced pilot or whatever, but still, it shouldn't have happened. It's unfortunate, at the same time, we have to go out there and do our job. We know he was giving it everything he had, so that's what we're going to do."

There's one two-man bobsled that's already out of the Olympics, although not for injury-related reasons.

Latvian officials said Thursday that the sled driven by Janis Minins will not race in competition Saturday and Sunday, after he needed emergency surgery late last week to remove his appendix.

Minins will be reevaluated in "four or five days," Latvian press secretary Marita Vilcina said, adding there's still a chance Minins could compete in four-man competition next week.

Hefti also qualified for the Olympics in four-man but gave up that spot so teammate Daniel Schmid — who was among others who crashed Wednesday night — could drive in both events. Hefti planned to join Ivo Rueegg's four-man sled as a push athlete.

Now, that's all contingent on him getting medical clearance.

"There were not very many teams that were ... holding back at the start," Krone said. "They were attacking the track."

The track has been under attack in another sense for some time.

International officials have been questioned about the setup of the track for months. After Kumaritashvili's death luge race organizers moved the start of all men's, women's and doubles races in that discipline lower down the track in an effort to keep racers from reaching the sort of speeds being recorded in training.

In bobsled and skeleton, that's not really feasible, since athletes need long, relatively flat start ramps to push sleds from.

"It's the Olympics and a big event so you guys are out here watching and asking, 'Why are all these guys crashing?,'" said Canadian driver Lyndon Rush. "This is what happens during training at (bobsled). This is not an easy track, but it's not the hardest track either."

The memorial site for Kumaritashvili memorial has grown a bit in recent days at the track, yellow flowers and photos continuing to adorn the pole that he sailed into during his fatal wreck.

It's a grim reminder, for certain.

"You would have to be real cold not to feel anything," Rush said.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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