An Asterisk Needed for the Luge Competition

A tragic (and avoidable) accident has led to the “dumbing down” of a sport.

On Friday (12 February), Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili entered turn 16 of the notorious Whistler track for the final turn of his life.  Mere seconds later, Kumaritashvili was thrown from his sled and into a metal pole.  And before the Vancouver Olympics could even begin, the death of one of its athletes had bloodied its hands.

No joking here; just rest in peace.

I have not seen the video of the accident; nor do I desire to see it.  I have read enough to know what happened and how tragic it is.  I think that up until this accident, people were not aware how dangerous sliding can be.

The Whistler track is considered the fastest in the world.  Because competitors can reach speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, this track is also among the most dangerous.  Think the Talladega Superspeedway in NASCAR, but without restrictor plates.

And this is a track that while it tests the world’s best sliders, it is also one that scared the shit out of them.  Kumaritashvili himself had noted to his father that the track scared him, especially the turn that took his life.

The death of Kumaritashvili forced the Olympic organizers and the International Luge Federation (FIL) to take a reactive measure, considering everything from canceling the event to moving the start position up.  The decision was to move the starting position up to the female starts.  This move shortened the track and lowered the top speeds.

While everyone had to overcome the slower track, the move was criticized by some who felt the speed of Whistler was an advantage.  Nevertheless, German luger Felix Loch took home the gold.

But what if the accident did not occur?  If the start was not pushed down the mountain, how would things have played out?  I ask this not because I believe that Kumaritashvili would have won the competition.  I ask this because the start position did play a role in the outcome.

That takes nothing away from Loch.  This claim that perhaps an asterisk is necessary for the men’s singles rests on the recent claims by the Vancouver Olympic Committee and the FIL that Kumaritashvili, not the track, is to blame for the accident.  The Georgian entered the turn too high, attempted to compensate for this, and ended up losing control.

While human error does appear to be the cause of the accident, Kumaritashvili is not some Average Joe wandering in off the streets of Vancouver (or Whistler, to be exact).  Yes, this was his first Olympic Games, but he was obviously good enough to qualify for the event.  He knew what he was doing and yet still crashed.

And, he is not the only one to express concerns about the course.  Several other athletes, including those in bobsledding, had noted the dangerous nature of the Whistler course.  Additionally, FIL president Josef Fendt was concerned about the speeds that could be reached on this track.

Then there is the chicken-egg debate.  Did a crash like Kumaritashvili’s make Whistling appear dangerous?  Or, was the track so treacherous that it caused an athlete like Kumaritashvili to crash?  Given that crashes are not uncommon in luge — bronze medalist Armin Zoeggeler also crashed during training — I tend to believe the latter is true.

Thus, while human error may have caused the tragic accident, the track was the impetus behind the “error.”

If the track is not the cause for the error, then why adjust the start position?  It seems hypocritical and disrespectful to Kumaritashvili.  It is hypocritical because the move was made despite blaming the athlete.  It is disrespectful because it does not address the greater issue of safety for the athletes.

It should not take a tragic accident for a sports body to take action in order to protect its athletes.  I am reminded of the reactive nature of NASCAR, especially after the death Dale Earnhardt in 2001 (almost nine years ago to the day).  While safety measures have dramatically improved in NASCAR, it took the death of one of auto racing’s most famous drivers to do what was necessary.

While Kumaritashvili was not a superstar in luge, it is still in his death that the FIL begins to consider improving the safety of its athletes.  Ironically, some possible measures could be derived from NASCAR, such as catch fencing.

Danger is an intricate part of luge.  But death should not be a part of any athletic competition.  As Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili stated, “No sport mistake is supposed to lead to death.”

It was a sad way to begin what should be a celebration of some of the best athletes in the world.  If the FIL and the Olympics want to make the best of this situation, they need to use this opportunity to improve the safety of its athletes.  As President Saakashvili noted, “If this death can lead to improved security and response to people expressing their concerns, maybe it was not in vain.”  That would be a better response than simply blaming Kumaritashvili in what amounts to an attempt to cover the FIL’s ass.

But if we just sit around and continue to play the blame game, then everyone loses.

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