Grief gives way to gold for German luge champ



WHISTLER, British Columbia --- Germany's Felix Loch, speeding safely through the final curve where a fellow Olympian tragically died just two days earlier, won a gold medal in luge on Sunday, and brought brief but needed comfort to a sport rocked by criticism that it put performance above protection of its athletes.

Loch finished his four heats in 3 minutes, 13.085 seconds, well ahead of teammate David Moeller (3:13.764) and Italy's Armin Zoeggeler (3:14.375), the two-time defending Olympic champion.

Officials, under pressure after 21-year-old Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed in a practice crash Friday, shortened the track by moving the starts down the mountain. The alteration worked to slow the sleds, but the changes might have tilted the balance of competition.

American Tony Benshoof, who finished eighth, understood the reasoning behind moving the start and respected the decision, but that didn't mean he liked it.

"Lowering the start really, really put me at a disadvantage," said Benshoof, who spent two years preparing for a steep start on the Whistler track, which he felt suited his strengths. "The second they did that, they basically gave the Germans two medals, which was frustrating.

"But I'm not making excuses," he said. "We all had the same situation."

Kumaritashvili died after being thrown from his sled at nearly 90 mph and catapulted into an exposed steel beam. The spot is now marked as a memorial with candles and flowers.

His death, just hours before the cauldron was ignited, rattled many of his competitors -- and the entire Olympic family -- and forced luge officials to consider the unthinkable possibility of canceling the competition. Instead, they decided the games would go on, but only after altering the course so there would be no repeat of the harrowing accident on this beautiful mountaintop.

For Loch, who has trained in BMW's wind tunnels, it didn't matter where he started.

He was fastest, by far.

Born in Koenigssee, his country's sliding capital, the 20-year-old returned Germany to luge's summit by dethroning Zoeggeler, who was attempting to match German luging legend Georg Hackl's record of winning gold in three consecutive Olympic games.

It's a mark that Loch, the new German wunderkind, may one day surpass.

"It's going to be tough to knock that guy off," said Canada's Ian Cockerline. "If he can maintain this, he could be on top for a long time."

Loch, already a two-time world champion, is the youngest luge Olympic gold medalist in history. Fellow German Dettlef Gunther was 21 when he won gold at the Innsbruck Games in 1976. Hackl, now a coach on the German team, won his first in 1992.


Luger tributes

In Whistler's Olympic Rings Park, the entertwined sculpted steel rings have become an impromptu memorial to luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died Friday after he slammed into an unpadded steel pole during a training run. And condolence books are being signed in the athletes' villages for his family, said Vancouver organizing committee spokeswoman Renee Smith-Valade.