Crash Course

As the fanfare and hyped-up coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics quickly fades from the public mind, Canadians will savor their newly won gold medal stature for generations. And while the country and its champions bask in that deserved afterglow, many questions still hover in the gloom surrounding the fatal crash of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was flung from his sled at the Whistler Sliding Centre on opening day.

It is difficult to swallow the offical explanation that the victim was soley responible for his own sudden death. Sans a more detailed investigative report—than the one presently being offered by Olympic, Luge and Canadian officials—I turn to my peers for a semblance of clarity.

Carolyn O'hara from her PBS Blog,

"The Whistler Sliding Centre is known to be one of the fastest courses — if not the fastest — in the world; one of its turns goes by the name "50/50" because athletes figure there is a 50 percent chance of making it around while still on the sled. Before the crash today, the track had been described by one coach as 'an elevator shaft with ice.' Some athletes have complained that the track is simply too treacherous."

It is simply baffling that one of the fastest turns on the track was rimmed by steel posts, with no protective barrier or padding. It's relevant to note that the man who designed the track knew "next to nothing" about bobsled or luge before accepting the job, by his own admission.

From The Vancouver Sun,

“The design firm commissioned to build the Whistler Sliding Centre vowed to create the 'most challenging' course ever made. It now promises to be the last of its kind.

'The track is too fast,' Joseph Fendt, president of the World Luge Federation, told London's Daily Telegraph. 'We had planned it to be a maximum of 137 km/h but it is about 20 km/h faster. We think this is a planning mistake.' "

That's a hell of an admission. The morning following the crash, however, after conducting a twelve-hour "full investigation," the IOC and ILF announced that the accident was caused solely by pilot error, not the structural design of the track. Either the Telegraph got it wrong or Fendt back pedaled.

Quoted in The New York Post,

“We never said it is too fast,” International Luge Federation president Josef Fendt said.

Lawrence Donegan of The Guardian lends his own interpretation,

' "The track was safe,' Josef Fendt, the president of ILF, added for good measure – a statement of so-called fact that was quickly revealed for what it was: the desperate words of an organisation (sic) that now faces some serious questions of responsibility…"

Another issue receiving media scrutiny is Canada's training policy, aimed at giving Canadian athletes a competitive edge. Last fall, Olympians around the world cried foul when Canada restricted foreign athletes to a minimum amount of training at some 2010 Olympic venues, including the Sliding Centre. Canadians enjoyed unfettered training time and visiting teams charged Canada with unfairly exploiting its home field advantage, though the policy did not violate any rules.

Comedian Stephen Colbert, a sponsor of the US Speedskating team, also objected,

"Canada is cheating!"

More seriously, a British Olympic Association manager expressed concern that training restrictions posed potential risks. Maybe so. Several athletes have crashed during training on the track, including Italy's top contender Armin Zoeggeler, and a Romanian woman, who was knocked unconscious. reports,

"More than a dozen athletes have crashed during Olympic training for luge, and some questioned whether athletes from smaller nations — like Georgia — had enough time to prepare for the daunting track.

… The fatal crash places the politics of the track in a decidedly different light. Earlier in the winter, the American team complained of the tight restrictions the Canadian team placed on use of the Whistler track, which was seen as an example of simple gamesmanship. The Canadians are expected to do well during the Games and limited access to the track to preserve a competitive advantage.

… In light of Kumaritashvili's death, however, the Canadians will undoubtedly face criticism that with a track of such speed, athletes should have been given more practice time to become familiar with it."

Seems logical that a thorough inquiry would also weigh training restrictions as a possible factor, and whether such a policy should be changed or even banned for future Olympics. Still, that icy elevator shaft is more at issue.

The Sliding Centre reopened for training within a day of Kumaritashvili's crash, but not before adjustments were made to the angle of the final turn and a makeshift wooden wall was hastily erected in front of the metal beams. Bill Plaschke of the LA times chides that the wall "looked as if it had been assembled in fifth-period wood shop." To reduce the chances of another disaster, men's luge will now launch from the women’s starting ramp.

Bill Plaschke,

"If there were no deficiencies in the track, then why did Olympic officials shorten it and slow it after the death, moving the men's starting line down to the women's starting line, and the women's line down to the junior starting line?"

That's a good question, and one that will hopefully be answered soon, if only for the family, friends and teammates of Nodar Kumaritashvili. RIP.


Please see Bill Plaschke's piece here.

  • Bill Plaschke
    Posted at Sun, 2010-02-14 6:39 Reply

    Re: A Death Soon Brushed Aside

    Thanks… great stuff. • from an email send by Plaschke on 2/14/09

  • Julie Johnson
    Posted at Tue, 2010-03-2 6:37 Reply

    Well Argued

    Well argued, Stephan. That was a terribly sad, seemingly avoidable, loss.

    • Julie Johnson is the editor of the internationally acclaimed magazine "All About Beer"

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