Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Blame the Dead Guy

The only thing worse than an Olympic athlete dying in competition is for that athlete to be blamed for dying. Mistakes are not supposed to end in death at the Olympics. There’s a reason why it had been nearly 50 years since an Olympic Games produced a death in competition and that reason isn’t “luck.” Olympic athletes—even the ones who participate in obscure sports from even more obscure countries—know enough about their sports and have had enough training in their sports to avoid making fatal mistakes. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attempt to avoid the microscope by calling into question an athlete’s training is callous, cruel, and barbaric. It’s unfortunate that it’s not illegal, too, because someone should have to face consequences for such an ignorant and self-serving act of inhumanity.

Nodar Kumaritashvili was not a favorite to medal in Vancouver but let’s not confuse that with being a charity case. Kumaritashvili came from a family of lugers. He began training in 2003. Out of 65 lugers on the World Cup circuit, he was ranked 44th. He had completed 26 runs on the same Whistler Sliding Centre track that ended up taking his life. This isn’t an athlete who was unfamiliar with his sport or even the fatal track. Yet, that didn’t stop the International Luge Federation (FIL) from releasing a statement saying his death resulted from driver-error rather than its torture chamber of a track. Specifically, the FIL said, “Officials of the FIL were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.”

Congratulations to FIL officials for being masters of semantics. The accident may not have been caused by deficiencies in the track but Kumaritashvili’s death sure was. Even if the track itself was universally praised—which was certainly not the case—there’s the whole issue of the unprotected steel beams just inches off the edge of the track; the same steel beams that ended Kumaritashvili’s life. Lugers make mistakes but Kumaritashvili didn’t die because he made a mistake. He died because he catapulted into an unprotected steel beam. Again, mistakes in competition are not supposed to kill Olympic athletes. When they do, you can rest assured that someone other than the athlete did something very wrong.

It’s not that I would expect the parties responsible for producing such a widely ridiculed track to openly accept blame for the death of an athlete. That wouldn’t be good for business. However, would it be too much to ask for them to avoid saying things like “the changes were made for emotional considerations and not necessarily for safety purposes”? That rationale is peculiar in light of another FIL statement that said, "Based on these findings, the race director, in consultation with the FIL, made the decision to reopen the track following a raising of the walls at the exit of curve 16 and a change in the ice profile. This was done as a preventative measure, in order to avoid that such an extremely exceptional accident could occur again.” That would seem to indicate that the track was made safer, to you know, make it safer—instead of the emotional considerations it cited previously.

The FIL and other Olympic butt-coverers must think that the rest of the world is pretty dumb to attempt to pawn off this as an unprepared athlete gone wrong. The Whistler Slide Centre has been panned by coaches and competitors alike for being unsafe and borderline unfit for competition for over a year. Even the FIL’s own president said the track was too fast and dangerous. And based on the events of last week, he clearly knew what he was talking about. A two-time gold medalist from Italy crashed in training as did a German medal contender. A Romanian luger was knocked unconscious. It would be some coincidence if all of these crashes by some of the world’s best lugers just happened to come at a track that had been roundly criticized for being too fast and dangerous and yet have nothing to do with the safety of the track. It would be even more of a coincidence for a luger to die on that track and yet have nothing to do with the safety of the track.

Kumaritashvili himself was downright afraid of the course. His father said that his son told him before his fatal run that he was “scared” of the track. Remember, this is a luger who had made 26 runs down the track and was ranked as the 44th best luger in the world. To hear that an Olympic athlete was literally afraid of participating in a sport that he had spent seven years training for is both sobering and sad.

In the end, the FIL got it right. It shortened the track and, more importantly, put the protecting wall in front of the steel beams that should’ve been there in the first place. It’s just too bad that it couldn't have gotten it right without first getting it so incredibly wrong both in the track design and then in its need to point fingers at a dead Olympian in the wake of such a tragic accident.

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