LAKE PLACID — A month ago, at a pre-Olympics Nature Valley World Cup ski cross event held at Whiteface Mountain, where four skiers raced side by side down a tortuous run filled with jumps, sharp turns and steep slopes, French skier Florent Astier crashed so hard that he broke his back and is now paralyzed. In Vancouver, during an opening day practice run, the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili flipped, bounced out of the run and was killed when his body smashed into the unprotected steel columns. Operator error, said the Vancouver Olympic Committee, the International Luge Federation and one of the track designers, David Baranowski, of Van Boerum & Frank Associates. But was it?
In their quest to “Own the Podium,” the Vancouver Olympic Committee and Canadian Olympic Committee have significantly reduced access to venues by non-Canadians to enhance their home-team advantage. Normally when lugers go to a new venue, they start lower so as to get a feel for the run and to learn the curves as they work their way up to the top, gaining confidence and knowledge. The restricted access provided very little time for non-Canadians to develop that knowledge.
The result of the Canadians’ desire to give their athletes a significant hometown advantage, so they could finally win a gold medal at an Olympics they host, has been a big factor in making the luge track and other courses less safe for everyone else. The Salt Lake City Olympic track, by contrast, was open to the world two years before their Olympics, which resulted in a much more level playing field and safer conditions.
Another factor is that, in an effort to create a one-of-the-best-in-the-world tracks, the Canadians designed a track that would be 10 mph faster than any other. That’s a huge leap in speed — about 12 percent faster. This means that the room for error is reduced in the fastest sport on ice where winning is measured in thousandths of a second and speeds at Vancouver have jumped to nearly 100 mph. Decisions have to be made that much faster, this by people whizzing down a snaking course lying flat on their backs, barely able to see and subject to tremendous G forces — G forces now greater than they have experienced before. As Australian luger Hannah Campell-Pegg was quoted in the New York Times, “To what extent are we just little lemmings they throw down the track, and we’re crash-test dummies?”
A third factor is the creation of riskier events, such as ski and snowboard cross, as a means of attracting younger audiences, an expanded market share and increased corporate sponsorship. When the willingness to sacrifice the safety of non-host-country athletes to gain an advantage in the hunt for medals is coupled with these pressures, the results can be debilitating for life or, in some cases, fatal. Blaming the dead athlete for not being prepared to slide on a course he was denied time to adequately prepare for is no less disturbing. Ethically speaking, what is the difference between one athlete using performance-enhancing drugs and an athlete having five times the training time as another on a cutting-edge course? In either case, the athletes are not playing on a reasonably level playing field.
An irony is that, immediately following the Olympic Games in Vancouver, the city is host to the International Paralympics, games for athletes living with disabilities. It seems that one outcome of the Olympic movement in its quest for creating ever-riskier events is generating potential future athletes for the Paralympics. Rather than continuing that trend, the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili represents an opportunity to rethink what the Olympics are all about.
“I’ve been in the sport since 1977, and I have never dealt with anything like this,” said Ron Rossi, the chief executive of USA Luge, in a Salt Lake Tribune article. “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.” Add to that lack of a level playing field and the desire to win gold and generate publicity at all costs. It seems that if NASCAR and IndyCar can agree on speed and safety limits, and still attract millions of viewers and sponsorship dollars, so can the Olympics.
Vancouver and the Canadian Olympic Committee are getting a lot of press. Perhaps they need to ask themselves, is hosting the deadliest Winter Olympics in history the type of press they were hoping for?
Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley and is a columnist
Lake Placid News.