Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Vancouver: Ignoring the real problem

The Olympics have suffered countless calamities over the past week, including the mechanical failure at the conclusion of the Opening Ceremonies, a slew of weather issues, the cancellation of many of the tickets for events at Cypress, the collapse of a barrier at an Alexisonfire show and subsequent injuries to many concertgoers and the failure of the non-Zambonis at the Richmond Oval. For these events and a slew of others, the Games have taken a beating from many, particularly British journalists. Yet, as Bruce Arthur of the National Post points out in an excellent column today, the biggest issue around the Olympics is still the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and the cover-up that's followed it.

The IOC's initial response to Kumaritashvili's death was promising. The grief Jacques Rogge and John Furlong demonstrated appeared real and heartfelt, and their tribute to Kumaritashvili at the Opening Ceremonies was appropriate and well-delivered. However, shortly thereafter, the IOC changed their tune dramatically, blaming Kumartiashvili for his own death [Jere Longman, The New York Times] after a brief investigation. Arthur accurately called their news release on the matter "a truly heartless and despicable missive", which about sums it up. Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili nailed it in his comments at a news conference [Donald McKenzie, The Canadian Press] shortly thereafter, saying "No sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death. No sports mistake is supposed to be fatal."

Blaming the tragedy on Kumaritashvili is missing a big part of the picture. Yes, Kumaritashivili made a mistake, and yes, that led to his death. Clearly, the course can be navigated without tragedy, or we would have seen other deaths. What the IOC is overlooking, though, is that these kind of sports by nature are a delicate balance between speed and safety, and the Whistler track falls on the wrong side of that line [Jeff Passan, Yahoo!]

As Jeff Blair of The Globe and Mail wrote a week before the crash, many concerns had been raised about the track's incredible combination of ridiculous speed and tremendous G-forces long before Kumaritashvili's death. The New York Times reported today that Venezuelan athlete Werner Hoeger had been trying to warn Canadian and international luge officials of the track's dangers since he suffered a concussion on a race there in November, and Misha Dzhindzhikhashvili of The Associated Press wrote that Kumaritashvili had called his father shortly before his death to relay his concerns about the track. Other athletes had commented on the track as well, with Australian luger Hannah Campbell-Pegg being one of the most outspoken [ The Daily Telegraph]. "I think they are pushing it a little too much," Campbell-Pegg said before the fatal crash. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we're crash test dummies? This is our lives." Unfortunately, her comments and the comments American luger Tony Benshoof made to NBC [Blair] turned prophetic: "When I first got on this track, I thought that somebody was going to kill themselves."

The worst part about the luge tragedy is that the IOC has completely overlooked the inherent flaws in the track. Yes, they made some changes, but as Yahoo!]'s Trey Kerby commented, those changes should have been made beforehand. "I'm not a professor of luge safety, but doesn't it seem as if these extra measures should have been installed when the track was built?" he wrote. "Isn't it common sense to pad steel beams and to try to eliminate the possibility of a slider flying off the course? It's terrible that a life was lost to learn these lessons."

Even that would be more acceptable if the IOC admitted they got it wrong, and they were now fixing the problem. That wasn't how they approached it, though; the safety changes were depicted as unnecessary changes made only to reassure athletes. As Longman wrote, "Olympic officials insisted that the changes were not made for safety reasons, but rather to accommodate the emotional state of Kumaritashvili’s fellow athletes — a bogus notion." They've also announced that the track at the 2014 Olympics will be slower [AP], but won't admit that there's anything wrong with the track in Vancouver. They've tried to cover up the problem, and you can bet they're happy that everyone's moved on to more trivial complaints about the weather and the security. In the end, a man's life has been lost needlessly and the IOC has done their best to blame him for the tragedy. That's the real shadow that hangs over these Olympics.

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