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Blaming a Dead Luger Adds to Horror

Feb 13, 2010 – 5:36 PM
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Jay Mariotti

Jay Mariotti %BloggerTitle%

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Oh, sure, blame the accident on a dead man who can't defend himself. As if the tragedy on Blackcomb Mountain wasn't devastating enough to the Olympic movement, the legacy of the XXI Winter Games, Canada's dreams and a heartbroken family in the republic of Georgia, now we have to endure insensitive, clumsy finger-pointing from officials who won't accept a grave reality: They made the luge track too fast. Incredibly, they ruled Saturday that Nodar Kumaritashvili was a reckless driver who failed to compensate on his sled when he was late coming out of the next-to-last turn.

"There was no indication the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track,'' concluded the International Luge Federation, a motion seconded by Vancouver Olympic organizers. "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.''

It's a bogus explanation akin to posting a speed limit of 95 mph on an expressway, then blaming the driver for spinning out of control at, say, 95 mph. For months, serious concerns had been voiced that the track at Whistler Sliding Center was dangerous and vulnerable to a horrific event. Among the alarmed was none other than Josef Fendt, president of FIL, who said in November 2008 that racers were flying too fast on the course at 92.5 mph (149 kilometers) and urged that top speeds be reduced in the future to 85 mph (136 kilometers). "This is not in the interest of our International Luge Federation, and it makes me worry,'' Fendt said then -- in an FIL news release, no less. He also was critical of the Whistler track's designers, saying he didn't expect "such a leap'' in speeds.

Yet there was Fendt on the morning after in this stunned village, claiming that he never said such things. "We never said it is too fast. We are not saying this track is too fast, but that the track is fast,'' he said, using an interpreter because his English is lacking. "We did not expect those speeds, but after that, we found out that the track is safe for the athletes. We know all tracks are getting faster over time, and in planning future tracks, we have to make sure we don't go beyond 140 kilometers an hour. The speed of 137 here is an appropriate number.''

So why did Fendt, the most powerful man in the sport, watch idly as some racers hit 95 mph (153 kilometers) on practice runs this week? If he was so worried 15 months ago, why wasn't he mortified as several lugers were expressing fears, comparing themselves to "crash-test dummies'' who felt like their bodies were "on fire'' when they wrecked at high speeds? There had been more than a dozen crashes on the track during training before Kumaritashvili's 89-mph death ride. Where were the big bosses?

Asleep, that's where. Which is why they were so quick to cover their butts when a shocked world, sickened by the video of Kumaritashvili hurdling out of his sled and slamming grotesquely into an unpadded steel pole, is demanding answers that apparently aren't coming. If the luge federation and Vancouver officials did nothing wrong, riddle me this: Why were they compelled to reduce speeds by moving the start of the men's run further down the track to where the women start? Isn't that an admission of some sort, especially when speeds during the training run Saturday were significantly slower?

"We are racing with Nodar in our minds. It's honorable that everybody got on their sleds today. It was a tough moment for sure, but there wasn't fear. I'm confident of the safety of the track."
-- Canadian Luger Samuel Edney
Nope. It's all Kumaritashvili's fault.

"Our technical officials studied the tape and walked the track. Based on this, they were able to render their opinion as to what happened,'' said Svein Romstad, FIL secretary general. "The run of Nodar appeared to be routine until curve 15. At that time, he came out late on the curve. This resulted into a late entrance into the final curve. Although he attempted to rectify the situation, he shot up into curve 16. The result is that he experienced a G-force that literally collapsed his body, rendering it difficult to control the sled, which in this case he was not able to do. Once this happened, he was literally at the mercy of the path of the sled.''

Because he was GOING TOO DAMNED FAST. How convenient of Romstad to omit that small detail.

All of which wasn't lost on Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia, who defended Kumaritashvili hours after officials blamed him. "No sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death,'' he said at a news conference.

"Nodar was a very rapidly progressing sportsman," Saakashvili said. "He won qualification on his own merits. He didn't come here because he represents some country. He came here because he had to compete. He had to go through ... international competitions. He was training all around Europe. You cannot say it was inexperience.''

Then he thrust the dagger. "We were told by our sportsmen there was some suggestion that walls should have been higher there because there was eventuality of this happening," Saakashvili said.

Something reeks in the mountains, where a memorial to the fallen athlete -- candles, flowers, notes, a photo with the inscription "In Memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili, May he rest in peace." -- has been erected in the medals plaza. They should have shut down the luge competition for days, or canceled it entirely, after the first fatality at a Winter Games in 18 years. But only briefly was that option discussed, Romstad said. So there were the racers Saturday, resuming their craft even if it required sliding eerily into the same final turns where their colleague had perished. According to Fendt, not one luger expressed a desire to cancel the two-day event. You can call it steely dedication to one's passion.

I call it insanity.

"Everybody deals with these things different,'' said U.S. luger Tony Benshoof, among those who have wrecked this week. "I can't personally deal with it until after the Games.''

"It's a big hit to the luge community and the Olympic committee, but today is a new day,'' Canada's Samuel Edney said. "We are racing with Nodar in our minds. It's honorable that everybody got on their sleds today. It was a tough moment for sure, but there wasn't fear. I'm confident of the safety of the track.''

They should have been saved from themselves by their federation, the race director and the technical delegates. Instead, these daredevils continued competing on a death track where only minor changes were made. Yes, life goes on, but why so soon at the risk of more tragedy? Even with reduced speeds, the track remains the most dangerous in the world. A 12-foot-high wooden wall now covers the unpadded beams. The exit in the killer curve has been reshaped to "change the ice profile.'' And that's it, folks. Almost defiantly, they've done a minimum of work to the $105-million venue, convinced that this was "an extremely exceptional accident.'' Said Fendt: "For me personally, (Friday) was the worst day and saddest day in the history of the sport. We've been competing since 1964, almost 50 years, and it was the worst event that has happened. We had not had a fatal accident in 35 years on artificial tracks.''

Keep telling yourself that, sir, and you'll have another. The good news was that the racers, at least in the practice sessions, were going slower: None of the 36 sliders broke 90 mph. But conspicuous by his absence was Georgia's Levan Gureshidze, who didn't take his sixth practice run. When you think about it, who in his right mind would want to slide down the world's most dangerous track, face first, 24 hours after the grisliest scene they'd ever experienced? "It's really difficult to start,'' Slovenia's Domen Pociecha said. "Everybody's thinking the same thing. You can see it in their faces.''

"It eats you inside,'' Canada's Jeff Christie said. "It reminds you that it's a speed sport and that we take risks doing it. We're all racers; this is what we do. Our decision is to race.''

Adding to this exercise in denial was the organizers' stated reason for the subtle course alterations. They were made, Romstad said, more for emotional reasons than safety purposes. "We're trying our best to alleviate the traumatic components of this tragic event,'' he said, fighting back tears and sniffles. "The primary concern is the emotional aspect of it. We haven't experienced this in 35 years. We are unfamiliar with how to deal with this. In our discussions, it became clear that none of our athletes has experienced anything like this. They lost a friend yesterday, and it's emotional for everyone. Hopefully, psychologically, this will help. We believe this is the best course of action.''

Let's see. The man knows G-forces and psychology, but when it comes to the simple questions of why the track was too fast and why there were so many practice crashes, he draws a blank. "This is a fast sport,'' Romstad said, "and athletes do encounter problems on a regular basis. There was nothing out of the ordinary that signaled need for a change. There were no signs that were unique."

Nothing out of the ordinary? No signs that were unique? I'd say lugers going 95 mph, when Fendt strongly suggested not long ago that they shouldn't exceed 85 mph, is something out of the ordinary and unique. I'd call it a scandal, actually, and if the International Olympic Committee doesn't investigate, then president Jacques Rogge and his people should be investigated, too. "We certainly didn't hear anything about excessive speed,'' said Mark Adams, the IOC's communications director. "We're very, very confident it is safe.''

The lugers talked of high speeds all week. They were quoted in stories, interviewed on TV. Where was the IOC? Is it not apparent that a pall has been cast over the Games? "It's really unfortunate to have something like that happen," said U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White, who had his own ugly wreck last month. "We're all in different sports and from different countries, but when we get here, we're all part of the same family. It has definitely affected everyone here."

Not that Rogge and Vancouver officials don't already have full plates. Protesters, who weren't allowed to vent in communist China during the Beijing Games, have reared their ugly heads, with more than 200 donning masks Saturday to smash windows and spray red paint on a well-known department store called Hudson's Bay. Riot police were called, and idiots were arrested. Everywhere you look, safety is an issue at the Vancouver Games.

The mild climate has turned the schedule into a bloody mess, with the men's downhill ski event postponed until Monday and forcing NBC to scramble. And good luck with the freestyle skiing and snowboard events at Cypress Mountain, which required 100,000 cubic feet of snow to be ready for competition. The only winner amid the rain, sleet, snow and fog of Whistler is Lindsey Vonn, whose bruised right shin is slowly healing while the start of her first race, the super-combined, remains in limbo because of the weather. "I'm lucking out pretty heavily because of all the cancellations," she said. "Normally, I would be disappointed. But for my shin, I think, this is the best possible scenario."

The constant rain in the city has dampened moods, creating more of a coastal marine feel than a Winter Olympian vibe. Can anything else go wrong? Even at the Opening Ceremony, already a downer because of the luge fatality, Canadian speedskater Catriona LeMay Doan was left awkwardly holding a torch when one of four electronic pillars didn't lift as planned. Wayne Gretzky was whisked through the city streets on a truck before lighting the Olympic cauldron, and, shockingly, there were no problems with that.

But all of our thoughts remained on the mountainside. As a group, the lugers decided to wear a piece of black tape on the left side of their helmets. "He crashed on the left side of curve 16,'' France's Thomas Girod said, "so we are wearing tape on the left side of our helmets in his memory.''

Finally, somebody at the luge track did something smart.
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