Published February 12, 2010
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Swifter, higher, stronger — and now deadlier, too.
No one should be surprised, least of all the International Olympic Committee. 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 luger from the republic of Georgia 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."
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. He should have more than enough time to figure out what to do with the track before competition begins in earnest Saturday.
If not, we'll spell it out for him:
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 95.65 mph — 153.937 kph — about 6 mph 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. Kumaritashvili was the 44th-ranked luger in the world, and his speed was estimated at 89 mph at the time of the crash. But Italy's Armin Zoggeler, who owns four Olympic medals and five world championships, wrecked earlier the same day, and while former great Georg Hackl praised the course as "outstanding and fast and a new quality of speed that we've never seen before," that's probably because he doesn't have to race on it.
Rogge declined to say whether the course would be altered for competition, or if the IOC would exert pressure to see that some changes are made.
"The investigation is under way with officials of the International Luge Federation and we will see in proper time when we have the report what action will be taken," he said.
So here's another suggestion: Put IOC members on sleds and send them down the track. It would be the only way they could begin to understand what their handiwork has wrought.
In a bid to juice TV ratings and pull in the risk-loving demographic that advertisers covet, they've added sports that make Evel Knievel's jump-the-fountain stunt at Las Vegas seem routine — since 1984: freestyle skiing (notably aerials and ski cross); most snowboarding events; short-track speedskating; skeleton (returned after decades), and Super-G skiing.
And they've tricked up the venues — infusing water to make the Alpine course as slick as an ice pond, for example — to ratchet up the risk.
At the news conference after Kumaritashvili's death, Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong fought back tears.
"We are heartbroken beyond words," he said, and then paused. "I am so sorry to be in this position and to be reporting this to you. It's not something I had prepared for, never thought I would need to be prepared for."
Sadly, that may be exactly what a young Georgian luger realized in that blink of an eye before his sled careened tragically out of control.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org