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.