Swifter, higher, stronger — and now deadlier, too.
No one should be surprised, least of all the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Winter Games have been veering closer to the edge of sanity for the last 25 years, more than doubling the number of sports largely by adding those where the thrill is exceeded only by the risk.
On Friday, a young Georgian luger paid the price with his life, crashing near the end of a course that common sense suggests was simply too fast.
When IOC president Jacques Rogge was asked whether that was so, just hours after the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, he replied: “I would be ready to debate or to deliberate with you at the proper time, but I’m sorry, this is a time for sorrow. It is not a time to look for reasons that it happened.”
Wrong. Is the proper time before the next luger flies off the 16-turn Whistler Sliding Center track, or after?
Rogge took only four questions before beating a hasty retreat from a news conference that lasted seven minutes. As a result, he and the people in charge at the international luge federation (FIL) should have had more than enough time to figure out what to do with the track before competition begins in earnest Saturday. Wrong again. Late on Friday, FIL officials blamed the crash on human error, but said the walls would be raised at the exit of curve 16 and the ice profile changed to prevent “such an extremely exceptional accident” from happening again. They also said lugers would get two full training runs before the actual competition begins. That sound less like a solution and more like doubling down on an already bad bet. What the luge federation should have done was obvious, so much so that we’ll spell it out for them: SLOW IT DOWN. It’s not as if everyone couldn’t see this coming. When the luge track opened, one of the earliest runs produced a speed of 153.937 kph, about 10 kph faster than any slider had ever recorded. “It makes me worry,” Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation, told The New York Times, and he was hardly alone.
Lugers told reporters they gave the nickname “50-50” to Curve 13, because they figured those were the odds they’d get through it without crashing. Curve 11 was dubbed “Shiver,” which needs no explanation. You probably couldn’t repeat what they said about the course when no one was listening.
On Thursday, after a wobbly training run, Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg asked, “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.” Later the same evening, Mark Grimmette, a five-time Olympian and the U.S. team’s flag bearer, worried that the Whistler track was threatening the boundaries of safety.
“We’re probably getting close,” he said. Crashes have been almost as common as scraped knuckles, and not just by second-tier racers or the inexperienced.