For anyone who was raised on a family tradition of watching the Olympics, like my family, we would follow the different venues over the years and note the issues and changes to the different sports. Luge is one of the issues I’ve followed over the years.
There has been an ongoing discussion about the safety issues involved in such an exposed and basically unprotected sport. The slider has a helmet, to be sure, but nothing else protective, due to the need for aerodynamics and the ability to maneuver in a split second.
The parallel to the ongoing discussion about safety has been an ever increasing of the speed, difficulty and challenge that has been added to each successive track. In each the last few Olympics, there has been a continuing discussion about the inherent danger of the sport and the fact that each track was faster and more dangerous than the last one.
In this current Olympics, Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia lost his life on the latest edition of the Olympic luge track. He was 21 years old. This was his first Olympics and he was ranked 44th in the world. He was not a very experienced luger. This was his second incident in his practice runs on this track. He was not able to place himself correctly going into the final turn which caused him to separate from his sled, flying over what was supposed to be a protective barrier into an uncovered metal support beam. He was never revived and was DOA at the trauma center.
There was another crash the same day. The individual was the defending Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy. Violeta Stramaturaru of Romania crashed the day earlier and needed to be medevaced. She was unconscious. These are included in the 12 or so crashes that have been occurring in the practice runs.
According to some of the commentary on NBC’s official broadcast Olympic coverage, some of the lugers said that the final turn was very tricky. It required a very precise angle to negotiate the turn or they would be flying out of the turn for a crash. According to Frank Masley, a three-time Olympic luger, “The track has pushed the limit too far.”. He called it a “freeway track.”. The track is capable of speeds of 96 mph. There has been talk that it might hit 100 mph.
There are several factors that seem to have contributed to this incident. One of them is the fact that the track is not just for the lugers. It’s shared with the skeleton and the bobsled which has a whole lot more protection. Since the bobsledders have more control and protection in their bobsleds they prefer a faster track with steeper slopes and longer curves, The lugers do well on slower tracks with more graded descents and tighter turns. The bobsled is more popular than the luge and so the design is more suitable to the bobsled.
Another factor is that the USA luge president, Dwight Bell, tried to get the tracks slowed down. But the international luge community preferred to go faster.
A third factor is, that even though the danger of the Whistler track has been being discussed for months among the luge community, all nations except for Canada have been restricted in their use of this particular track especially considering the safety issues. For some of the athletes, the first week of the Olympics is the first time they’ve had to acquaint themselves with this particular track.
There have been several condolences and apologies from the International Luge Federation, the International Olympic Committee and the Games Organising Committee with the statement that there would be an investigation.
The official statement has been that the accident was driver error and that it was not the fault of the track. That not withstanding, the officials have decided to make some changes to the track, such as raising the wall at the last curve and other unarticulated changes to the ice.
The Canadian senior IOC member, John Furlong, made a comment that went both ways. He questioned that
either the tracks are becoming too extreme or that perhaps it was just one of those days for this particular athlete.
This death is only the fourth death in modern Olympic history and the first in the luge. Also, considering that there has been a lengthy discussion over the some of the extreme descents in this course, perhaps it’s time to do some serious considering. Either the tracks need to be reinforced with more safety precautions, slowed down a bit, or separated from the bobsled track. Or perhaps all of the above should be instituted. Another factor to
consider is that it would have been better to have given the competitive countries an equal access to the track instead of giving the insider edge to the local team and thereby creating a situation where this could have even happened.