Sunday, February 14, 2010

The lugers return to the track, but so many questions remain

Friday's tragic death of Nodar Kumaritashvili was remembered once again on Saturday, as track personnel worked to change some of the dynamic of the track, officials made changes to the starting point and athletes pondered what their sport would be remembered for at the 21st Olympic Games.

With their preliminary investigation complete, IOC officials seemed to suggest that it was not the track that was at fault for Friday's tragedy, but an unfortunate split second decision by the Luger himself that may have contributed to the horrific crash.

It was a message that more than a few did not share and indeed by its actions you wonder if the IOC itself really believes its words, that as Vanoc and IOC officials put up a higher wall in the crash area and changed the start point for the days training runs and for the competition.

With padding around cement poles, a less challenging start position and extra protection on the controversial final turn, it was no surprise that the speeds recorded during Saturday's training sessions were lower than previous numbers posted on the course, though at speeds of excess of 140 kilometres per hour, it still is considered a very fast track.

Indeed, anyone who has seen the horrifying video of the final seconds of Mr. Kumaritashvili's life couldn't help but be struck by the glaring presence of those cement posts and wonder if perhaps a serious oversight had not taken place. The fact that the tragic section of the track received remedial attention in the aftermath of the event offers up an indication that it was a potential concern after all.

The contradiction in the IOC position with the declaration of the track not being at fault, followed by the hasty renovation job has not gone un-noticed at Whistler.

For some it's the very fact that training sessions have continued that is an issue, Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News provides a damning indictment of IOC officials found it incredulous that they were moving the games forward as they assembled their hastily designed barrier on the final turn not even waiting for the paint to dry before declaring that all would go on, he went on to submit the luge officials for hall of shame membership.

The President of Georgia himself, Mikheil Saakashvili even offered up his thoughts, reviewing the concerns of a few in recent days over the speeds the course was generating and the apparent low profile of the walls.

The decision to change the dynamic of the competition has met with mixed results from competitors, those it seems who have spent more time on the course are not happy about the changes, in particular the Canadian team coach expressed his disappointment in the refinements on Saturday, an unwise public contribution considering the tragedy of the day before.

Glen Hauptman, a Prince Rupert resident who has a son that is a luger and was an alternate for the Olympic squad for the games, outlined for the Vancouver Sun the recent events on the track that have taken place without incident and how repeated journey's down the track made his son Brendan more confident with the dynamics of that track.

Those comments are framed by suggestions in some camps that Vanoc had not provided enough practice sessions for competitors to feel comfortable around the circuit. An underlying theme at times regarding Canada's oft mentioned quest to "own the podium".

And while there are those that feel the track is safe for those who are veteran lugers, others however, seemed to be more thankful for the changes, some remaining consistent with their thoughts of the pre Olympic period that the luge track was a dangerous creation for this years Olympics.

For one participant, no amount of safety refinements could erase the very real horror of Friday, fellow Georgian, Levan Gureshidze, is from the same village as Nodar Kumaritashvili, he was too overcome by the events of Friday to continue with his bid for an Olympic medal.

In his comments on Saturday, President Saakashvili offered up the thought that no sports mistake should lead to a death. A statement that while true, sadly isn't always correct, as through the history of sport at times misfortune and tragedy stalk an event.

Death in fact is not a stranger to the luge event, its history saw tragedy arrive in 1964, the first year of the event at the Winter Olympics, at the time the impression was that the sport was too dangerous to be included in the roster of events. It's a fascinating sport to watch, but one that does seem to be of the most dangerous of the events offered.

Forty six years later, the same questions are being asked and the answers still leave many uncomfortable. As the Georgian President said, no sports mistake should lead to a death.

Especially if there is a possibility that the mistake was made even before the competitors took to the course. We may never know what really contributed to the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili. But the IOC owes it to his memory and to the participants of his sport to fully explore all of the factors that led to Friday's tragedy, something that clearly can't be done in less than 24 hours.

The luge, like its accompanying sports of the skeleton and bobsleigh, is a fascinating sport to watch, but one that is steeped in danger. In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, featured a preview of the Whistler complex, one that outlined the nature of the speeds that were to be reached and the effects that they could have on the participants. An article that surely never imagined the terrible fate of the luge event that would unfold just short days later.

The motto of the Games has always been faster, higher stronger and for the Glory of the games, but one wonders at what cost that pursuit must take and if that risk is an acceptable part of a sporting event.

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