Sport is dangerous. Every single sport poses danger to the competitor. Some see the effects greatly magnified. There is a chance that a player might break his leg in football, there is a chance a racing driver will be involved in a horrific crash, there is a chance that a ice hockey player will end up all blooded up after a fight. But what no one could ever come to terms with is death in sport.
The Winter Olympics is never usually associated with the danger. Nobody understands the sports enough to recognise the massive danger that the athletes face. An Inside Sport documentary earlier in the week first highlighted the danger of Alpine Skiing. The massive crashes after one little mistake is the difference between life and death. In 2001, Silvano Beltrametti was paralysed from the waist down after an horrific accident. Just two years ago, American Scott Macartney crashed five seconds from the finish line after losing balance from a jump, he was put into an induced coma but recovered. Whilst they survived, others did not.
But the danger is sadly not restricted to skiing, as it was shown by Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, on the day of the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Approaching the finish line, Kumaritashvili lost control at the final turn going at 90mph, hitting a concrete pillar on the side of the track. Despite the best efforts of the medical team, he was pronounced dead at Whistler hospital later in the day.
It is tragic to think that he was only 21.
He had not been expected to win the luge medal. The odds for him winning were at best 69/5 on. But this was the opportunity to represent his country at the Olympics, to make everyone proud of what he did in the games. To do what many could only dream of, be an Olympian.
Nodar Kumaritashvili was only starting out on his career, the International Luge Federation only list one event in which he competed in. 55th in the 2008/2009 World Cup. But there was promise, Georgian officials mark him as ‘spirited’. This was someone who could definitely produce something in the future. It is always worse when it comes before the start of a good and promising career.
The Press Conference announcing the passing of Kumaritashvili was deeply emotional. The President of the IOC Jaques Rogge was visibly upset with what had happened. This is not what the Winter Olympics needed, not what anyone needed, to happen.
Questions have already been raised about the safety of the Whistler Sliding Centre. Speeds have been reported to be 15mph higher than on other circuits, the vertical drop being 28m greater than at other circuits. This was a track to test new limits of the luger, but have passed the boundary of safe speeds. There is a quote from Australian luger Hannah Campbell-Pegg that gives a good impression of the course:
“I think they are pushing it a little too much. To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”
The track is simply too dangerous for anyone to run on. The speeds are too high and safety must be paramount. It is good to watch athletes being challenged to show their true abilities. But there is no need for their lives to be put at risk during it. Before Kumaritashvili’s crash, several other lugers also had accidents. Alarmingly, the Romanian luger Violeta Stramaturaru was knocked unconscious for a few minutes after she crashed during a training session. It was almost inevitable something worse was going to happen.
But when there is little safety consideration on the outside of the track, the speeds are almost worthless. The use of concrete pillars just meters from the track simply astounds me. Kumaritashvili would have survived if there had been none. He may have been bruised around, but he would still be alive. There is no need for the aesthetics of the venue to compromise the safety of the athletes. There is no need for a roof at all.
There can be ways to improve the venue, the inclusion of nets to stop the impact with the concrete pillars. Or starting the course lower down, meaning the luge will not get to as high speeds, decreasing the chance of an accident.
All in all though we have to consider the tragic events of today. Full respect to the other Georgian athletes who will still take part in the Winter Olympics even after the death of their compatriot. I hope they do win a medal in Vancouver, it would be such an emotional moment for the team. It would be a fitting tribute.
RIP Nodar Kumaritashvili. 1988-2010.