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February 15, 2010

Olympic officials ignored risks before fatal luge crash

My latest post for Working In These Times takes a closer look at the death of 21-year-old luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training run on Friday.

Luge is a risky sport, but there's no excuse for how the Olympic organizers and the International Luge Federation (ILF) managed the risks.

The president of the ILF, the official governing body of luge, warned that the Whistler Sliding Center track was too fast back in 2008. At the time, he recommended capping maximum track speeds at 85 mph for future tracks. Yet for whatever reason, ILF president Josef Fendt failed to sound the alarm in 2010, even though sliders were clocking well over 90 mph in practice.

Under heavy pressure from the federal government, Canadian Olympic organizers disgraced the entire country by allowing the home team to monopolize the luge run. Medals are great, but putting guests at risk for the sake of a competitive edge is the absolute antithesis of everything Canada is supposed to stand for.

Luge performance depends critically on practice. So much so that one excuse for not retooling tracks is that it would be unsafe to force athletes to learn new courses. When Kumaritashvili died, on the final curve of his final practice run, he'd only gotten in 25 runs at Whistler, over half of which had been abbreviated. By contrast, the average Canadian slider got 250 practice runs before the competition. 

Within hours of Kumaritashvili's death VANOC and the ILF put out a smarmy joint statement placing the blame squarely on the dead kid. The did adjust the track and move the starting line to slow the sliders down after the accident, but officials told the New York Times that wasn't for safety, that was just to make the "emotional" athletes feel better.

Comments

Well said, unfortunately. Whoever is to blame for this tragedy, it isn't Nodar Kumaritashvili.


At one level, the response from the VANOC and the ILF is expected. Lawyers and insurance companies brief highly insured clients NEVER to indicate any responsibility, as it may dampen their position in law suits for damages. Sometimes this goes as far as being prohibited from even saying, "I'm sorry." Such is the case with standard instructions from auto insurers in the U.S.

The VANOC and the ILF did have a choice in this matter. They could have expressed regret, and deferred comments until completing a thorough investigation at some indefinite time in the future. They could have said precautionary changes and construction alterations were being implemented ahead of a full analysis of the matter.

In putting the blame squarely on the unfortunate young man, they went beyond any semblance of compassion. The reason they gave, that he erred in the way he came out of the prior turn, is to state the normal and expected in all Olympic competitions: athletes make mistakes - lots of them. That is why designers of power tools, auto safety restraints, and baby play toys anticipate the errors people are likely to make. The power tool will shut off if a hand grip is released. The safety belt will tension automatically in a crash. Babies won't tip over in a walker. This is the result of a lot of trial, error, and injury.

To make a point of self-inflicted deadly error, and to come to the conclusion so quickly, is to document how easily they can make themselves aware of the problem. If they were consistent in blaming the victim for the death he brought upon himself, they should have signs or instructions for the other athletes saying, "Coming out of a turn too soon or too late may result in your death." Better yet, they should take the position that athletes will make mistakes, some leading to serious injury or death, and close the facility. Having been warned before, in 2008, the management may even be liable for criminal action.

Now go and apologize to his family, friends, and all fellow athletes.

THE IOC,THE ILF AND THE VANDOC ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR NADOR'S DEATH. THE CANADIAN LUGE TEAM SHOULD EITHER PULL OUT ON IT'S OWN AND SAVE FACE OR BE BANNED FROM THE 2010 COMPETITION FOR VIOLATION OF THE SPIRIT OF THE GAME. OTHER LUGE ATHELETES HAVE BEEN HOMERED BY THE CANADIAN TEAM.THE WHOLE IDEA OF THE OLYMPICS IS A MEETING OF ATHELETES FROM AROUND THE GLOBE TO COMPETE ON A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD.WE HAVE FINALY REACHED THE POINT THAT AN AMATEUR COMPETITOR MAKING NO MONEY HAS DIED FOR THE LOVE OF HIS SPORT.I ONLY HOPE THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT,THE ILF,VANDOC OR THE IOC PICKS UP THE COST OF THIS YOUNG MANS FUNERAL.GOD BLESS YOU NODAR,YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS,YOUR TEAMMATES AND COMPETITORS AROUND THE WORLD. MAY YOU R.I.P. NODAR KUMARITASHVILI

What Canada used to stand for is very hard to find these days, when you consider the governments Canadians have elected over the past twenty years. The Liberals are what Conservatives used to be; and Conservatives are total wingnuts. Most governments lean right, and some, like Gordon Campbell's libertarian (not Liberal) party, have pared government right to the bone.

There's very little honest coverage of what went on to create venues for the 2010 Olympics. The Tyee is about the only source I can find. https://thetyee.ca/News/

Recently they broke the story of the Canada Pavilion breaking provincial law: "Nation's Olympics centre runs afoul of Architects Act, charges Architectural Institute of BC"
https://thetyee.ca/News/2010/02/10/CanadaPavilion/

Harper, our Bush-lite leader, arranged to have a questionable Chicago firm design it at the last minute. The building is not only problematic, structurally, it's hugely ugly, an eyesore, an embarrassment. (It resembles a warehouse for lumber or, as I like to call it, a Speedy Muffler Shop). This building is supposed to showcase Canada and it's ugly, poorly designed, and American made. Heh, just like the federal government we have now.

I hope that every journalist and every reader connected to Georgia will do their utmost to communicate to Nodar's family that he is considered by Americans to be a hero. Nodar made the supreme sacrifice to protect his fellow athletes from a similar fate. Regardless of the officials saying it was his own fault, they are making important safety changes now, and using the lame excuse of "emotional reasons." Of course they know the truth. They should act with honor and give Nodar's family the small comfort of they deserve: the truth that the track was too fast and dangerous, and poorly designed. No sportsman should die because of a mistake on the course. There should have been a way to maintain the rider within the track. Nodar gave his life so that others might be saved. There is no greater heroism than this. His name, his memory, and the example of his courage will live with honor throughout the world, forever.

"THE CANADIAN LUGE TEAM SHOULD EITHER PULL OUT ON IT'S OWN AND SAVE FACE OR BE BANNED FROM THE 2010 COMPETITION"

What abunch of lame A$$ statements, blaming Canada and Canadians, blame the ILC, blame the engineers of the track, blame the media for glorifying Nodar's death, how dare you blame Canada or Canadians for any of this.

I'm blaming the Canadian Olympic officials and their backers in the Canadian government who thought it was okay to cut back on luge practice for visiting athletes, and whoever knew the track was too fast since 2008 and failed to do anything about it. The luge athletes weren't in control of these decisions.

Ok, let see, if it was a Canadian athelete that died, what would the response be? Oh, it's okay, Canada cheated, looks good on them, they deserve it for cutting back on luge practice for visiting athletes. BS

How about blaming Georgia for being medal hungry and not investing more in their training for Nodar. Nodar had 25 runs, what if he died on his first run?

Canadian luge team had 250 runs, no one died.

Luge is and always was a dangerous sport, there is consequences for the lesser experienced sledders trying to keep up with the best, Nodar was not one of the best, he himself said the course was too fast. He is not blame free by any means.

Tell me what country hosting the olympics(summer or winter) or any other venue, didn't take advantage of training on home turf.
You can't blame Canada for that. How could the ILC/IOC allow Canada to restrict other lugger's from practice? If that's the case blame the ILC and IOC, not Canada.

phil

The Canadians here ( National govt? Local organizers? both? ) gave vastly less access to visiting teams than any prior Olympic host gave in the past. This denial of full access was something new. It was very wrong.

How could the ILC/IOC allow Canada to restrict other lugger's from practice?

Maybe they never had to address the issue before, since all previous hosts engaged in " fair play " access to the site before the games began?

Apparently not. This is nothing new, after reading the NYTimes about this incident, the only one complaining is the american official:

"Ron Rossi, the chief executive of USA Luge, said he would propose a rule change that would provide for greater access and would fine track designers for violent crashes.

“I understand that countries want to win, but please justify to me why you wouldn’t let the Georgians train,” Rossi said Saturday. “I’ve been in the sport since 1977, and I have never dealt with anything like this. Lots of drivers make errors, but they don’t come flying out of the track. They need to be asking questions about lack of training time, lack of track designer accountability.”

This from the canadian luge coach:
"The Canadian Luge coach Staudinger maintained that Canada had provided adequate access.
“In Torino, we were supposed to have 35 runs,” he said, referring to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. “We only had 15. Here, everyone has had about 40 runs on the track. But it’s well beyond the call of duty. There is absolutely no regret.”

Hows that for fair play.

The only thing that would have helped Nodar, is a barrier to avoid being thrown from the track.
A probe revealed it was driver error that caused the crash, Nodar was ranked 44th in the world. The top sledders didn't have a problem with the track. Now it's been shortened and slower, and all the top sledders are complaining...WTF

Every olympic's has had it's problems, the world will again be watching the next olympic's,. I know the Chicago olympic's will be flawless of course.

There will be no Chicago Olympics, to that city's immense benefit

phil you are completely cherry picking in your response

Re the Toronto Sun

The US let the Canadian team take extra practice runs in Salt Lake City in 2002

The tiff has roots back to 2002 when the Canadians were granted extra runs to prepare for the Salt Lake Games. But that was a lifetime ago in the sport for both countries. Now, the U.S. has a medal contender in Erin Hamlin and the Canadians have their own woman prospect in Alex Gough, a regular in the top 10 who could make a surprise leap to the podium here.

The Americans argue there was a handshake agreement that would allow their athletes to have similar access to that given the Canadians prior to Salt Lake.

That deteriorated a year ago when the Canadians asked for an extra week to prepare for the world championships in Lake Placid in exchange for the Americans getting one extra week here. When USA Luge said it wanted four weeks in Whistler, all bets were off.

"You always want more (practice) especially on an Olympic track," USA Luge veteran, Tony Benshoof said on Tuesday, biting his tongue. "And the Canadians gave us the bare minimum."

The Austrians also complained

Bad sportsmanship is poor form in itself - but wouldn't it also devalue any medals that were won under such a circumstance?

Sorry about the cherry picking, don't have the time to read all online rags, especially the Star
Sounds morelike sour grapes than a tiff.
Now the track is shorter and slower, taking away any advantage to all countries, except canada, because they had a few extra practice runs. Right!
Enjoy, the medal.

Today's VANOC embarrassment (possibly the worst Olympic Committee ever. Is there a gold medal for that?)

Anyone who lives in Vancouver knows a) it rains more in February than any other month; b) temperatures warm in February; c) it's already Spring here as it is every year at this time; d) VANOC was told this repeatedly and called everyone who said so a naysayer and went ahead and planned snow events at Cypress. Because they're idiots.

I guess I just don't see how this rarified sport can mean so much to anybody that it's worth it to play such hardball for medals in luge. I just don't get it. It's like polo, only with fewer participants worldwide.

Bruce

Spot on - outside of Olympics and other major competitions, does anyone at all play at this sport?

And curling - rubbing brooms on the ice to move something downward - that's a sport?

I don't get it.

I've spent the same number of hours watching this winter Olympics as I did watching Torino - zero. Don't get it.

But today, pitchers and catchers begin to report to spring training. The long dark winter of our sports discontent nears an end.

Lindsey, I agree that criticism of VANOC is justified, but the story you link to says The 31-day period ending on Feb. 9 was a record-breaking mild spell for Vancouver, according to Environment Canada meteorologist David Jones, who notes it's been at least 114 years since the area has recorded so many warm mid-winter days in a row.

That doesn't address your claim that the typical weather in Vancouver during February wouldn't adequately support Winter Olympic events. Do you have reference to something that's more on point with regards to this particular issue--Vancouver's normal February weather, rather than a once-in-a-hundred-years exception?

I think Lesley raised that point. I agree that it was foolhardy of VANOC to count on there being enough snow in February to count on holding snow events on the local mountains. If you're scheduling snowboarding and such, it had better be a sure thing. They got exceptionally unlucky with a super-warm spell, but even in a colder year it would have been a dicey proposition.

Anyone who grew up in the Lower Mainland can tell you that you just can't count on there being good snow on the local mountains in any given week. You can count on snow at Whistler, but the lower peaks close to the coast wax and wane a lot depending on the weather.

You are correct that I misattributed the point to you Lindsey--sorry for the mistake.

Curling is actually played by ordinary people, as oppose to eg luge.

Canada: pwning the odium.

As I understand it, shortening the track actually takes away the Canadian advantage - they practiced expecting to compete on the full track, so they're used to hitting what are now the first few curves at a much higher speed. The shorter track favors the most explosive starters.
I can't remember the last time I saw a luger thrown from the track. Even at that speed he might very well have walked away from that crash if he'd stayed on the track. Having a track that's capable of throwing riders off is negligent - that's not a normal risk of the sport.
Due to their running start, both bobsled and skeleton will still start at the top of the track. Let's hope the new barriers work as planned - I find it hard to believe that the padding they've put on those support posts would do much good in a high-speed impact.

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