Dismayed by this Olympic event

Published 3:31 pm Thursday, February 18, 2010

I have for as long as I can remember been a fan of the Olympics. As a lover of not only sports but sportsmanship, I have always found the Olympic Game’s ability to highlight competition while simultaneously displaying our similarities more than our differences admirable and appealing.

For the first time in my life, however, I am dismayed and offended by this much celebrated competition. As I’m sure most of you already know, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training run crash in Vancouver last week.

The news of Kumaritashvili’s death was stunning and the video footage that immediately followed the crash was nothing short of horrifying. His nation of birth was irrelevant to me as I and millions of others were saddened and stunned by his untimely death. Twenty-one is always too young to die.

Saddened and stunned turned quickly to troubled and disturbed, however, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Luge Federation (FIL) seemed to be tripping over themselves trying to avoid responsibility and throw the blame for what turned out to be deadly mistakes to the one person not around to defend himself, Nodar Kumaritashvili.

“There was no indication the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track,” according to a statement by the FIL. “This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16, and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled, resulting in the tragic accident.”

This is a particularly troubling statement given that 16 months ago Josef Fendt, president of FIL, said that racers were flying too fast on the course at over 90 mph and urged that top speeds be reduced in the future to no more than 85 mph.

“This is not in the interest of our International Luge Federation, and it makes me worry,” Fendt said.

In what may prove to be the most athletic move of the entire Olympic Games, Fendt quickly backpedalled and clarified his previous remarks.

“We never said it is too fast. We are not saying this track is too fast, but that the track is fast,” Fendt said. “We did not expect those speeds, but after that, we found out that the track is safe for the athletes. We know all tracks are getting faster over time, and in planning future tracks, we have to make sure we don’t go beyond 140 kilometers an hour. The speed of 137 (aprox 86 mph) here is an appropriate number.”

In other words…the track was perfectly safe, but from now on we are going to make sure the tracks are extra perfectly safe. At least Fendt was subtle in his accusation that the crash and death was the result of Kumaritashvili’s lack of skill. Canada coach Wolfgang Staudinger called the accident “100 percent” driver error.

What these men have failed to realize or publicly recognize at least are the clear warning signs that led up to this tragic event.

Numerous lugers complained that Canada had not allowed them enough practice time on a course boasted by its own designers as “most challenging track in the world.”

Curve number 13 had been renamed ’50-50′ by many sledders because it had proven to be their odds of escaping or crashing in the turn. Luger after luger had been unable to make it to the bottom of the course unscathed in the months prior to the Olympic Games, yet no adjustments had been made.

“To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track,” Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg told reporters. “I mean, this is our lives.”

It’s appalling that someone had to die before officials made the changes necessary to keep these athletes safe.

Still even more inexcusable are the attempts of officials to blame a dead man for their own irresponsible behavior. It seems that while most athletes continue to expose the best in all of us, there are at least some parts of the Olympic Games that expose the worst in us as well.

David Friedman is a long-time contributor to the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald. A Bertie High School graduate, he and his wife currently reside in Wilmington. David can be reached via e-mail at dave@gate811.net.