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random olympics: tragedy and sport

By now most of my readers (hello, readers!) will have heard of the tragic death of Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run at the Whistler Sliding Centre this morning. My thoughts are with the entire Olympic family, the teammates and coaches of Kumaritashvili, and his family and friends.

That said, I hope the IOC and VANOC don’t cancel the luge events, nor do I hope they “dumb down” the track by altering the ice density or lowering the start location. There is a race to be held, there are athletes who are ready to race and are willing to accept the risks inherent to their sport. Let them compete as a tribute to their fallen comrade.

That’s the one issue with the Olympics: unlike the year-long elite race series for these events, the Olympics allow lower-level athletes to compete on the same field as the best in the sport. While nations like the U.S.A., Canada, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Norway have a tough time winnowing down which elite athletes will represent them at the Olympic Games, other nations send athletes who aren’t usually on the World Cup or similar race circuits – and some who have never competed on a regional (let alone a world) stage. These athletes train hard, but don’t have the same abilities or experience as the elite-level competitors.

You’ve seen these folks with their “unique shot at glory” before:

  • Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards of England, the sad-sack ski jumper who could barely navigate the airport hallway, let alone launch himself off a ski jump back in 1988.
  • The Jamaican bobsled team – also in 1988 – who qualified for the games but were thoroughly outclassed by every other team on the track.
  • The nordic skiers from Kenya, who fielded their country’s first Winter Games squad in 2002.
  • One-person alpine ski and skating teams from Israel, South Africa, Greece, Lebanon and other nations not traditionally thought of as winter sports meccas.

All of these developments brought along safety concerns, some of which were addressed by the governing bodies of the individual sports (the IOC defers to a world governing body, when possible). For example, after Eddie “The Eagle” and his dangerously near-crash “jumps,” the FIS (governing body of all kinds of skiing and snowboarding) drew up minimum competency requirements to compete at the Olympic level. But not all sports thought it necessary to do so, including the bobsled and luge federations.

With the track in Whistler now seeing record luge speeds in excess of 155 kph, there’s discussion within the International Luge Federation of setting speed limits for new tracks (including the one under construction in Sochii, Russia, for the 2014 Games). And I admit that this is a prudent measure to take for future track construction.

But at this point, they should accept the track they have in Whistler: it’s one for the elites of the sport. If a team determines that the venue isn’t safe for its competitors, said team should pull its competitors but not declare the track “unfair.” The competition is a test, and not all will pass (morbid as that sounds).

Elite athletes in events such as luge, skeleton, bobsled, alpine skiing, snowboarding, skicross, ski jumping and speed skating all accept that there is risk involved in their chosen sports. Injury and, sometimes, death are part of the equation, and these athletes live their lives on the edge every time they mount their sleds, pole out of the starting gate or fly off the carved precipice of snow and ice. They train for years, often for most of their waking hours, to minimize the chances of getting hurt while also learning to push the limits of their bodies and equipment.

Spotlight events, such as the Winter Olympic Games or World Championships, bring the adrenaline and danger of these sports into the living rooms of hundreds of millions of people every few years, many of whom are only casually familiar with the events they watch. So the shock factor of things going wrong is perhaps higher than it is for the die-hard fans of these sports, and with the media’s ever-critical eye focused on these showcases of sport, the questions are always raised: are things too dangerous? Is it necessary to even hold these events, given the risk?

I say it is. These are elite athletes, even if the “elite” status is only within their home nation’s borders. And they are at the Winter Olympic Games to compete against the best in the world.

So let the games go on. Let the luge races happen. Do it for the memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

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4 Comments

  1. Willy

    Rudi,

    I generally agree with your sentiments. If somebody wrecks in the downhill and breaks his neck, you won’t see them cancel the rest of the races.

    You would, however, see the relevant governing bodies taking a hard look at safety and protective gear.

    To me, the question is this: Have the luge or Olypmic powers-that-be, in a drive to increase the excitement of the sport, inadvertently pushed the safety envelope too far? I don’t follow luge… am no authority, but there seems to be a feeling, even among the truly world-class lugers that the trend is for faster, steeper, more dangerous. I’ve been watching footage of the top-shelf sliders wrecking all over this course.

    If these athletes have been put at a level of risk that constitutes some kind of negligence, then I think serious shakeups need to happen throughout the system. Where that line would be drawn… I wouldn’t want to be the team that’s going to decide that. At very least there needs to be a close look at the way the physics are modeled on these courses.

    /w

  2. Eileen

    Rudi,
    from what I have read this course, it averages 6mph faster than any other luge course ever built. To a novice like me, that seems like a lot. And as your friend noted above, even the truly elite in the sport have been crashing and privately expressing concern. I’m all for good competition, but competition hasn’t even started and one ranked athlete is already dead. Seems to me if there is a way to slightly modify the track to pull it back from the extreme it is built to, it might save lives. And that’s worth it to me.

  3. randomduck

    I’m finding it interesting that the elite, veteran luge and bobsled competitors are saying that it’s a dangerous track but are willing to rise up to the challenge, while the “tourist athletes” (i.e. the ones who compete only in the Olympics and a few other contests) are all crying foul. That’s the issue with the Olympics, in many respects: it’s a bigger mix-and-match of athletic ability and skill than you’ll see at many of the season-long race series.

    One point that has been raised over the past 24 hours is that the Canadian Olympic team had exclusive access to most of these venues for training over the past three years, especially the newly-built facilities like the sliding track and the ski jumps. That, to me, is the most irksome factor. Other than World Cup level bob and luge racers, Team Canada has been privy to exclusive use of the sliding track since 2007. Even in Salt Lake City (seen as the fastest track until now), the track was open for all teams to use for two years heading into the 2002 Games.

    And Willy brings up a great point about the limits of physics with regard to human abilities. Obviously, the Whistler track is at the limit of what is currently possible in terms of technology and athletic ability. This tends to drive progress in sport, in the long run, but it can be really touch-and-go while the new rules and technologies are developed.

    I think that Picabo Street brought up a great point this morning on “Meet The Olympic Press” (and a point that I alluded to above): some governing bodies of sport place qualification criteria to compete in the Olympics. If an athlete doesn’t meet these criteria, they can’t race. The International Ski Federation (FIS) limits who is allowed to compete in the high-speed skiing events (downhill and super-G) to athletes ranked in the top 200 in the discipline, worldwide. They don’t allow the “tourist athletes” to risk life and limb on an icy mountain at high speed. The giant slalom and slalom, being more controlled environments, allow all comers with a FIS license (within national team quotas, of course).

    And I believe that all high-speed and/or high-risk events at the Olympics should have minimum qualification for entry – including bobsled and luge. Sure, this would put a damper on the “feel good” stories (which often make me retch and/or laugh uncontrollably), but it would also reduce the chance of tragic turns that happen when underqualified, unexperienced athletes get in over their heads.

    Note that I’m looking at this from the perspective of a lapsed competitor in a high-speed, high-risk winter sport (alpine ski racing), so I tend to side with the high-level athletes on this one – so it’s good for me to hear other points of view.

  4. Willy

    Yeah, I think you’ve got it right, Rudi. If there’s a real potential of injury or death there should be a minimum qualification. I didn’t realize their WASN’T such a thing. My question is whether or not it approaches the level of negligence to allow sliders on that track who are clearly ill-prepared.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Challenger-Shuttle-Disaster-Style phased disclosure of emails and memos… “Engineering is concerned about speed, esp. for 2010 games.” – “IOC and VOC leadership appreciate concerns, remind engineering that these are world-class olypmic athletes…”

    I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a team or an athlete to disqualify themselves because the track is too steep, or the mountain is too icy. These folks are representing their countries.

    So… another question going forward is this: What’s the goal of the games? Is it a gathering of the world in the spirit of athletics, and all efforts will be made to ensure that as many can compete as possible? The world-class caliber athletes would have less technical challenge than they’re used to, but the lesser-prepared countries would be able to participate. Or, is the goal the highest level of competition and challenge?

    /w

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