Luge is a dangerous sport in which accidents happen. That was the refrain from luger after luger when asked about the death of Georgia's
But the sport's athletes will be the first to tell you that they are driving technicians rather than adrenaline junkies, and that they don't consider luge to be overly risky. Amidst the entirely appropriate shock at the death of a young athlete, that fact has been lost that in the hands -- and feet -- of masters, luge is relatively safe.
A peer-reviewed scientific study of luge injuries, a 1997 paper in the
The study analyzed 57,244 competitive runs by men and women ages 12 to 35, and recorded 407 injuries. The vast majority of those were bruises, scrapes and muscle strains. (Luge is rough on the back and neck muscles). A mere 10 injuries over the seven years were serious enough -- there were some cases of broken bones -- that the athlete missed a week or more of practice. Lugers were more likely to get hurt while away from the track, doing things like carrying their sleds, than to be seriously injured on the track.
The grand total of concussions was 10. By comparison, a six-year study of the NFL found, by conservative estimate, that a concussion occurred about every two games. That would mean that, since there are 16 games on opening NFL weekend, pro football experiences seven years of Lake Placid brain injuries by the second week of a season. In boxing, moreover, the entire goal of the competition is to so damage the opponent that he loses motor control and is unable to stand. And as Canadian luge coach
That isn't to say that the modifications in Whistler -- the ice on curve 16 was shaved to make it harder for sleds to go up the wall, a new retaining wall was put in place and the men's start was lowered to that of the women -- are not perfectly prudent. Nor do they significantly alter the competition in the eyes of most observers, for whom the sport looks much the same at 80 mph as at 90. Perhaps retaining walls should be put along each curve at every track in the world, and even the athletes who were upset at the lower starting spot were quick to say that the luge federation had to show the world how serious it is about safety.
What happened to Nodar Kumaritashvili was a tragedy so deeply affecting that athletes who should have been reveling in the realization of their Olympic dreams were frequently choking back tears. Still, they agreed that the rush to characterize every luge run as a life-and-death gamble is a conclusion reserved for those who only started following the sport on that tragic Friday.
It's a long-accepted practice in Olympic luge that the home country gains an advantage from extra practice time on its own course. Because of the change in the start house at Whistler, however, Canada's advantage "melted like snow in the rain," said Staudinger, who was noticeably angered by the move. The course, he maintained, is only dangerous "for countries that approach it like tourists." Indeed, the tiny Georgian team did not take advantage of every training opportunity offered at Whistler. During the first week in January, for instance, the course was open for extra training to all lugers ranked lower than 30th.
Staudinger felt that Kumaritashvili never should have been at Vancouver in the first place. The Olympic competition is intended for the top 40 lugers in the world, but for various reasons some of those athletes don't make the trip, which opens the door for lower-ranked sliders. For example, Staudinger noted that
Kumaritashvili, ranked 44th, would not have been competing at Whistler had every eligible slider ahead of him come to the Games. "That is a loophole we need to change," Staudinger said. He added that he expects the international luge federation to take up that issue in the spring.