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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

Winter Olympics: Luge wasn’t ready to be back on track

By Mark Purdy
San Jose Mercury News

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Attention, Olympic historians. We have new candidates for a gold medal: insensitive sports officials division.

Luge administrators, take a bow. Of shame.
Saturday, less than 24 hours after a sled rider from the Republic of Georgia had died after crashing on a track that for the past month had been criticized as unsafe and risky, all of the other riders were back in their groove. Hopefully.
“It’s really difficult,” said Domen Pociecha of Slovenia. “Everybody’s thinking the same thing. You can see it in their faces.”
Right. The look said something like this: It couldn’t happen again, could it?
I wanted to know the answer, too. And so, after a two-hour bus ride from Vancouver, I visited the spot of the crash that cost Nodar Kumaritashvili his life.
The open gap at the exit of the “Thunderbird” turn, the gap where Kumaritashvili flew through the air at 90 mph and struck a steel pole, was no longer there. The gap and the row of poles were covered by a hastily constructed wooden wall. It resembled a makeshift Home Depot project. A sign was taped to the whitewashed barrier: “Wet paint.”
That’s the crime, in my book. The luge officials could not even wait for the paint to dry before they decided that nothing was wrong with their facility. They told the men and women lugers they ought to go right out there and zoom away. Training runs all day. Competition at night. No worries. The whole Kumaritashvili thing had been a fluke.
Actually, not a fluke. Pilot error. That was the quick conclusion after an investigation that seemingly took less time than Friday’s torch-lighting ceremony.
In a statement released early Saturday morning by the International Luge Federation, the death of Kumaritashvili was attributed to his horrible form entering the track’s final turn. He had crashed in earlier runs, as well. The officials said their track had no “deficiencies” and that no other slider was likely to make the same mistake as Kumaritashvili. Their statement called it “an extremely exceptional accident.”
Know what I call that? Extremely and exceptionally tactless. Would it have been so awful to postpone the competition another day, for a full review of the track’s safety? It’s a doubly important issue because the same facility will be used for the bobsled and skeleton races.
Put me on the same team as the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. Meeting with the media Saturday, he diplomatically raised the issue of whether the luge track had been properly vetted.
“One thing I know for sure,” said Saakashvili, “is that no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death. No sports mistake is supposed to be fatal.”
That sounded like an extremely and exceptionally reasonable stance.
No one can foresee every possible safety issue at every sports venue. But the track here at the Whistler Sliding Centre had been under scrutiny for the past month as being too steep and too dangerous as accidents multiplied and sledders were left shaken. One of them, Australian luger Hannah Campbell-Pegg, had openly wondered if the competitors were being used as “crash-test dummies.”
The luge decision to proceed looked especially crass, because a few miles away Saturday on another mountain, the men’s downhill ski event was canceled because of potentially unsafe conditions. The women’s combined skiing event set for today also was postponed.
Yet here at the sliding center, in the fog and drizzle, it was business as usual “& although interestingly, not quite. The starting line also had been moved farther down the hillside to slow the sledders down at the top of the track. Also, the refrigerating formula on the track was changed to make the ice more sticky, causing further speed reduction.
So to review: The accident Friday was entirely Kumaritashvili’s fault. But the luge honchos decided to build that wall and alter the course, anyway.
Following an afternoon practice run, Megan Sweeney stood near the finish area and spoke of her emotions. A bright-eyed woman from Maine who is 21 years old, the same age as Kumaritashvili, she heard about the accident Friday afternoon when someone told Sweeney she should watch a video of the tragedy.
“I didn’t,” she said. “I don’t want to see it. You know I crashed on my second run here. I just push it from my mind. It’s what you have to do.”
Sweeney then began talking about how the track changes were dragging down the time of her runs. So I asked if she would rather be going faster, in spite of the safety issues.
“Of course,” she said, then laughed nervously. “I know. There’s something definitely missing in my brain. I’m not going to lie.”
And in that flash, it hit me: This is exactly why you need to protect these amazing and driven people from themselves. It’s what the president of Georgia understood, as well. Competition is fine. But you need to protect the competitors from themselves. For example, in the biathlon — the combination skiing and rifle-shooting event — the rules do not permit the competitors to shoot each other. Otherwise, to win the event, they probably would.
As night fell Saturday at the Whistler Sliding Centre, the luge runs continued. Cowbells clanged. Fans cheered. Kumaritashvili’s teammate, Levan Gureshidze, withdrew and did not make a run down the track. One Swiss rider left his sled and skidded down the track but was not injured. Someone said they had spotted Kumaritashvili’s father, who is president of the Georgia Luge Federation, on the premises. He was giving hugs to coaches from other countries.
What must that man be feeling? Perhaps his son did commit pilot error Friday. But it is also possible that the authorities allowed this particular pilot to take off on an unsafe runway. There had better be no more serious wrecks on the side of this hill. Or there will be hell to pay.