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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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