VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- So this is what the Olympics have become, a dateline for a death sport. It wasn't enough for organizers to build a safe, practical sliding track on Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler. No, they had to design a $105 million monster that turned the luge into a joyride to hell, with wicked turns, a 152-meter drop -- the world's longest -- and a surface so rapid that it lured racers to approach 95 mph.
Too fast. Too dangerous. And too deadly for a mere sled -- basically, a missile upon which a human being slides face-up and feet-first, vulnerable to his immediate demise.
All week, there have been crashes on the course, more than a dozen in total, one that left a Romanian athlete unconscious for a brief time. And all week, not a soul from the International Olympic Committee, the International Luge Federation or the Vancouver organizing committee expressed concerns about the wipeouts. Nevermind that one racer had described the 13th curve as the "50-50 Curve,'' based on the odds of a crash. Nevermind that 15 months ago, when the sport's elite racers familiarized themselves with the Whistler Sliding Center, athletes suffered 73 crashes during training runs. Nevermind that as recently as Thursday, U.S. luger Christian Niccum compared ramming into the ice at 90 mph to being on fire, saying, "I just wanted to rip off my suit, 'I'm on fire. I'm on fire.' '' And nevermind that on the same day, Australian luger Hannah Campbell-Pegg voiced an ominous tone and a cry for help.
"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?'' she said. "I mean, this is our lives."
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So sadly, for a subtle country that aches to show its might and efficiency, Canada already has its defining moment of the XXI Winter Games. Regardless of Vancouver's beauty or how spectacular the competition turns out, how are we going to forget that a luger perished because a bunch of morons built the track too fast? A full house of Canadians, trying to make the best of an awful situation, mustered cheers and energy Friday night during the Opening Ceremony inside B.C. Place. But frankly, they should have postponed the Ceremony for a night out of respect to the fallen athlete, even if NBC protested and had to air Conan O'Brien reruns. Only seconds into the proceedings, the public-address man announced somberly that the ceremony was being dedicated to Kumaritashvili's memory. No matter how many lights sparkled, how many times they played the stirring "Oh, Canada," how many athletes tried to smile and how many native singers entertained -- Nelly Furtado, Bryan Adams, Sarah McLachlan and k.d. lang among them -- thousands of us sat inside the downtown dome and thought only about the senselessness of it all.
Wayne Gretzky and Steve Nash among those lighting the Olympic cauldron at night's end? Didn't faze me. I was numb, thinking about the crash and a young man's family. And I sat disgusted by what I heard from Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC. At an afternoon news conference, he struggled to hold back tears when speaking of the tragedy. "This is a very sad day. The IOC is in deep mourning,'' he said. "(Kumaritashvili) lost his life pursuing his passion. I have no words to say what we feel. It clearly casts a shadow over these Games.''
But when asked why the safety warnings weren't heeded or addressed, Rogge suddenly grew abrupt. "I'm sorry, this is a time of sorrow. It's not the time to ask for reasons,'' he said. "That time will come."
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The Funeral competition was not what we had in mind.
It would be insensitive, not to mention perilous and unsafe, to begin the men's two-day luge competition Saturday night. The course must be made slower, and if it requires postponing events for several days or even canceling all events on the track, so be it. Is it enough to have the men sliders start from the women's ramps and lower speeds? Saturday should be spent continuing an investigation into the accident and the track and making sound, safe decisions; local coroners and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are conducting one probe, and the International Luge Federation is conducting another. Clearly, the day and night should not be spent racing. But as of Friday night, the competition was still on, and women's lugers were scheduled to train Saturday morning. The U.S. luge federation was reserving comment, but Latvia federation president Atis Strenga spoke for many when he said, "It's a nervous situation. It's a big tragedy for all luge. I hope, we all hope, it's the first accident and the last accident in this race.''
Said Niccum: "When you are going that fast, it just takes one slip and you can have that big mistake. If you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick reactions, that sled will steer.''
Canada, too, should share blame. In its zeal to not only host the Winter Games but conquer them athletically, our neighbors grew a bit surly in refusing to let competing athletes use their facilities for training. This meant many luge athletes weren't familiar with the track, and we safely can assume that a racer from Georgia was one of them. Many athletes are angry that the Canadians, who have spent $115 million on increasing their usually modest medal count, would engage in such un-Olympic (and un-Canadian) behavior. "They're playing nasty," U.S. speedskater Catherine Raney told the New York Times. "I think every one of us would love to prove to them that what they did wasn't right, and we're ready to show it on the ice."
Maybe if Kumaritashvili had been allowed more practice time, he'd still be alive.
It seemed absurd at times to see such joy and merriment on the stage when back in Georgia, they were wondering what more they had to deal with. Eighteen months ago in Beijing, Georgian athletes competed while their country was being raided by Russian troops. Now, this? "It is a nation that has gone through an awful lot in the last three, four years,'' Vice President Joe Biden told U.S. athletes before they marched in the Ceremony. "It's a small nation of 4 or 5 million people, and the pride they had in representing their country here at the Olympics, and now to suffer this loss is just tragic."
The remaining Georgian athletes decided to stay in Canada and compete. With heavy hearts and sad faces, they marched in to a warm standing ovation from the 60,000 spectators. "They decided to be loyal to the spirit of the Olympic Games,'' said Nikolos Rurua, the country's minister of culture and sport. "They will dedicate their performances to their fallen comrade.'' Wearing red, they slowly made their way across the snow-covered surface. Next up was Germany, to bouncy music, and the fans became festive again as they welcomed 2,500 athletes from 81 other nations.
Sorry, they didn't strike the proper tone.
Do not blame Kumaritashvili, as some will try, for his relative lack of big-event experience. The defending Olympic champion, Italy's Armin Zoeggeler, crashed earlier Friday. If you're on a sled, you're in danger. Skill level doesn't matter anymore in the death track of Whistler.
Already, Vancouver is off to the worst start for an Olympic host in recent memory. Any comparisons to Munich in 1972, which I've unfortunately heard, are way off. The luge tragedy was avoidable -- and I'm not sure the same can be said about terrorists taking 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage and and murdering them. The Games always go on, even when a spectator was killed by a bomb 14 years ago at the Atlanta Games. And these Games should go on.
But I'm afraid to ask what nightmare is next. Did the IOC consider Vancouver's mild, rainy weather when it awarded the WINTER Games to this otherwise beautiful town? Where's the snow? The X Games events are in jeopardy at the nearby ski hill, and up in Whistler, rain has mixed with snow and made a mess of training schedules and competition dates. The women's super-combined event, set for Sunday at Whistler, was postponed indefinitely. It's good news for Lindsey Vonn, who can rest the world's most famous bruised right shin, but it's bad news for NBC, which wanted to showcase her in Sunday night prime time.
Twice Friday, organizers had to change the route for the Torch Relay because of protesters. For all of Vancouver's charms, including a waterfront as picturesque as Sydney's or any other's, I walked through the Downtown Eastside section on the way to B.C. Place. It went on for blocks, filled with drug users and prostitutes and homeless people, and it should surprise no one that activists from a Skid Row neighborhood factored into the protests.
Normally, the cry of the Opening Ceremony is, "Let the Games begin!'' Right about now, I'd like them to end before anyone else gets hurt.