For everyone's sake, reckless IOC must sacrifice thrills for safety

Saturday February 13th, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The International Olympic Committee's need to push the envelope is sewn into its motto Citius, Altius, Fortius - or swifter, higher, stronger - as if to be swift enough, fast enough or strong enough were a weakness or, at the least, a lame marketing idea. So over the past decade, in an effort to remain edgy, relevant and riveting, the IOC has ratcheted up the drama by going to the extreme, enlisting the hotdog hounds of freestyle skiing and seducing daredevil snowboarders to the Games.

The IOC's thrill-seeking devotion is boundless - and reckless. For months, the IOC failed to see the red flags concerning the danger lurking on the sliding course at the Vancouver Games. The leaders didn't listen as lugers complained that Canada had not allowed them enough practice time on a course its designers called the "most challenging track in the world." They didn't pay attention when one of the sliding track's curves -- No. 13 -- was dubbed '50-50' by bobsledders because that was the chance of crashing on it. They didn't make a note when one luger after another was unable to get down the track unscathed in practice runs this week. "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track," Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg told reporters Thursday. "I mean, this is our lives."

What happened to NodarKumaritashvili -- a Republic of Georgian luger who lost his life during a training run on the track Friday -- is under investigation by officials. A litany of questions is being asked about how a luger could lose control on a final turn -- No. 16 -- and find himself airborne, flying over an ice-covered concrete wall and into a steel girder holding up the roof of the track. Was Kumaritashvil too inexperienced? "I'd like to stress," said Nikolos Rurua, the minister of Culture for Georgia, "that [Nodar] was well-qualified. Any speculation about his experience to me is ... unfair and misleading." In fact, the world's best lugers have crashed on the same course. With high-speed accidents so prevalent, why wasn't there a catch-fence on the turn? Why no padding on the girder? Was the course - where lugers have reached record speeds of 96 mph - an ill-designed death trap?

IOC President Jacques Rogge had no answers. At a press conference hours after Kumaritashvil's death, he removed his glasses, wiped his eyes and expressed his sadness over the loss of life. His emotion was understandable, but his resistance to questions on safety issues was mystifying. He sidestepped issues surrounding the warnings voiced by the lugers and others. And even though the luge competition was just 24 hours away, Rogge said this day was not for debate but for "sorrow and not for reasons."

Here's what Rogge should have said: The athletes' safety is the IOC's top priority and not one more competitor will travel down that track until the investigation is complete and the course can be stamped as fit for the event.

Already, Joseph Fendt, the president of the World Luge Federation, has told the London Daily Telegraph, "We think this is a planning mistake." He went on to say the course was never supposed to leave lugers maxing out at speeds above 85 mph. This fact alone should lead to the postponement -- if not cancellation -- of the event. To do this would be for the IOC to admit mistakes. To do this would be to set a precedent for curbing the thrill. This is the last thing the IOC wants to do.

There is no doubt that speed is a seductress for audiences. But, unlike the IOC, other organizations have put hard limits on how dangerous sports have to be. In 1987, stock car driver Bobby Allison was traveling at 200 miles per hour at Talladega Speedway when his engine blew and dropped beneath his car. His back tire hit it, split and sent Allison's car airborne - a tumbleweed of sheet metal - as it crashed tail-first high up on the steel screen in front of the grandstand and showered the crowd with debris.

Somehow, Allison survived. But the sight of the horrifying crash - as spectacular as it was - ushered in the era of the restrictor plate, a piece of aluminum with holes punched in it that limits airflow to the engine and inhibits speed. The result? As it turned out, fans didn't miss the death-defying speeds because the competition - the pure racin' by the drivers - was enough of an attraction.

Sometimes, "enough" is a crowd pleaser. At some point, the IOC will have to show confidence in the competition. At some point, they will have to recognize the signs of trouble. What the IOC failed to see on the luge course is repeating itself in snowboarding. In recent months, snowboarders have suffered head injuries and concussions as they increase the difficulty -- and heighten the danger -- on their tricks. Just two weeks ago, Shaun White's head snapped back when he hit his chin during a landing on the edge of a halfpipe while attempting a double corkscrew. When is it time to ban the double corkscrew? "Being the guy that's had a big hand in inventing these tricks, I'd say that's outrageous," White said. "We fall, we get back up."

Some falls are too fast, from too high. When does reason take over? "The evolution of a sport is pretty vital to keep it from plateauing and right now it's moving to double corks," said Canadian snowboarder Jeff Batchelor. "Some of the accidents are pretty devastating but it's an extreme sport, so what do you expect?"

The expectation is for an Olympian to push the envelope. The IOC has made that its motto. But as other sporting organizations have proven, there are ways to eliminate spills without killing the thrill.

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