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Working In These Times

Monday, Feb 15, 2010, 9:56 am

Olympic Officials Ignored Safety Risks Before Luge Death

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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Whistler Sliding Center, the cite of Friday's fatal luge crash.   (Photo by Flickr user cheukiecfu, licensed under Creative Commons.)

The Olympic mantra is "higher, faster, stronger"—a potentially deadly credo if safety takes a back seat to endorsement deals, advertising dollars, and national glory. When Olympic medals are on the line, athlete safety is work safety.

Safety may be catching up with an obscure sledding sport called luge. Last Friday, 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili from the Republic of Georgia was killed during a training run at the Vancouver Olympics at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

As Kumaritashvili entered the final curve of his final training run, his sled slammed into a wall. He was thrown over an ice-covered concrete barrier and into an unpadded metal support prop. Medics were unable to revive him.

Within hours of the crash, Olympic officials issued a statement chalking the tragedy up to athlete error:

It appears after a routine run, the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16. 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.  The technical 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.

Despite their protests that nothing was wrong with the track, organizers modified the Whistler track in the wake of the accident. They put up a high wooden wall just beyond the curve where Kumaritashvili died. They even moved the men's starting line even with the women's, which was expected to reduce maximum speeds by 5 or 6 mph. Amazingly, Olympic officials told the New York Times they only did so to make the athletes feel better, not to make the track safer.

Sports fans who complain that the winter Olympics is boring obviously haven't heard of luge. Luge makes NASCAR look wimpy. If you enjoy the constant threat of high-speed crashes, but consider a steel and glass carapace unsporting, luge may be the event for you.

The racer lies face-up on the deck of the luge and steers with his or her feet, hurtling down the track as the sled skims the ice on razor-sharp blades. If you've ever slid down a hill on a stolen cafeteria tray, you get the basic idea. Now, imagine your tray is going over 90 miles an hour. You've got no padding, no seat belt, no mechanical brakes, and no margin for error. The fast-paced sport has only gotten faster thanks to precision-engineered sleds, aerodynamic suits, and better coaching.

Track design is very important in luge because the main challenge is staying in control of the sled while gravity takes care of the speed.

Kumaritashvili's death has shone a spotlight on the normally low-profile world of luge. In the glare of public scrutiny, it appears that Olympic officials and the sport's own governing body ignored ample evidence that the track was too fast for sliders to run safely.

Luge is inherently risky, but that doesn't absolve the Olympics and the sport's governing body. There is mounting evidence that senior decision-makers knew the Whistler track was especially dangerous, but failed to manage the risks responsibly.

For one thing, Vancouver organizers allowed Canadian athletes to monopolize the luge track and other Olympic facilities in an attempt to increase Canada's medal chances:

While Vancouver Organizing Committee officials followed the guidelines established by sports federations for allowing access, they did not follow tradition. Many athletes and federations from other countries were peeved over the relatively little training time on venues, from the ski courses to the speedskating oval and the sliding center. [NYT]

The president of the International Luge Federation (ILF), the sport's official governing body, told reporters on Sunday that his group had talked about capping speeds at 85 mph long before Kumaritashvili's fatal accident.

ILF president Josef Fendt gave no convincing reason for why the federation didn't speak up sooner.  According to the Wall Street Journal, "Mr. Fendt said the track was supposed to have a top speed of 140 kilometers per hour [ed: 86.99 mph], which is why the federation didn't address it." Regardless of what speed the Whistler track was "supposed to have," everyone could see that sliders were regularly going a lot faster.

Fendt was at Whistler in 2008 where he was shocked to see sliders going up 92.47 mph. At the time, Fendt declared that such high speeds were not in the best interests of the ILF, and suggested that speed limits for future tracks not exceed 87 mph.

Fendt didn't speak out at the 2010 Olympics, even after an Austrian luger clocked in at 95.69 mph during a training run the day before Kumaritashvili died. 

Fendt has tried to explain his apparent inconsistency by stressing that he was talking only about limits for future tracks, but that's a ridiculous excuse in itself considering how easily existing tracks and routes can be modified to reduce maximum speeds. As we saw in Vancouver this weekend, capping unsafe speeds can be as simple as moving the starting line.If sliders are going too fast, it's easy enough to slow the down, especially with more than a year's notice.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Whistler track is notoriously fast. When the world's top lugers raced there in October of 2008, athletes expressed shock and alarm at how fast they were going. Athletes were therefore ordered to practice by working their way up from the bottom of the track in six phases, instead of starting near the top of the run, like elite sliders usually do--a move the Journal characterized as "unprecedented."

In light of this history, Canadian organizers' decision to limit practice time for visiting athletes seems even more reprehensible. Kumaritashvili only got about 25 practice runs before his accident, whereas the average Canadian slider got about 250.

A senior U.S. luge official told the New York Times that, while the sport's top competitors have proven themselves capable of negotiating very fast tracks in international competition, lower-ranked sliders may not be up to the challenge. At the time of his death, Kumaritashvili was ranked 44th in the world. The young man's father says his son had confided that he was afraid of the Whistler track. 

If the U.S. official is right, the sport faces some tough choices. If they want to keep building these super-fast tracks, they've got to impose tougher qualifying standards to keep out athletes who can't handle them.

Former Olympic luger Duncan Kennedy suggested an alternative: capping the speed limit at 75 mph and retooling the tracks to reward technical control over raw speed.

Ideally, future tracks could be designed to be both fast and safe, but that seems unlikely to happen unless the authorities acknowledge the problem, instead of trying to shift all the blame onto a dead athlete who can't defend himself.

Defenders of the Olympics say the games deserve massive public subsidies in part because they contribute to international peace and harmony. Well, not this time. Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili wasn't prepared chalk up the tragedy to Kumaritashvili's inexperience, "I don't claim to know all the technical details, but one thing I know for sure: No sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death."

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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