Do the Olympics have a death wish?

Published February 16, 2010

| FoxSports

Not only did American Seth Westcott win gold in Monday's snowboardcross competition, but the event came to a merciful conclusion without any substantial harm (i.e. death or disfigurement) to the athletes.

In other words, NBC's television audience got what it wanted.

Or did it?

Four days into the Vancouver games, this Olympiad's defining event remains the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old luger from the Republic of Georgia. He was going about 90 mph on a course already feared to be too damn fast, when he crashed into an uncovered support post during a practice round.

"How was he supposed to survive that?" asked Jim Lampley, the broadcaster who had covered or anchored a record 14 Olympics going back to Innsbruck in 1976.

A couple of weeks ago, America was thrilled to see snowboarder Shaun White come crashing down face-first on the halfpipe during the X Games. White was attempting an exotic move - a double McTwist 1260, he calls it - during a practice round. ESPN replays showed his neck jerking backward and his helmet sent 15 feet into the air upon impact. White walked away, blessedly unharmed but for an abrasion on his left cheek.

But an inch or two another way, and America's hero could've ended up a quadriplegic. So I ask Lampley, who was unfortunately replaced as NBC's daytime anchor, if his former employer isn't merely imitating ESPN?

"I don't think that's the case," he says, adding that the real powers are the bosses of the International Olympic Committee, not the American network, which stands to lose a quarter billion on Vancouver.

"Despite all their loftily expressed sentiments about pride and competition," he says, "those are just by-products. The real product is commerce. If a winter activity produces substantial revenue, it's going to show up in the game."

Fair enough. But I have to think that both NBC and the IOC want to cultivate an audience raised on YouTube, extreme sports, porn, Jackass, MMA and Grand Theft Auto. The games have to keep pace with a demographic whose conception of reality leans heavily on visual savagery. Death-defying stunts are now expected, whether they end happily, like Shaun White's, or tragically, like the Georgian slider.

"Now I think you're onto something," says Lampley. "Virtually all of the additions to the Winter Games, at least since I've been covering the Olympics, have been to provide revenue and cheap thrills - transitory moments of extreme danger and fear."

Well put, certainly enough to know that NBC misses his services. Consider the events that have been added in the last two decades: short-track skating and freestyle skiing in '92, snowboarding in '98, and skeleton sledding in '02. Call them what you will, but they're all extreme sports. They all require helmets, for good reason.

Skeletons crash. Skaters are slashed (J.R. Celski, for instance, suffered a 60-stitch gash during the U.S. trials in September). Snowboarders are professional daredevils and should consider themselves lucky to sustain injuries that are merely orthopedic, not neurological. Then again, that's part of the attraction. As one American snowboarder phrased it for an NBC promotional piece: "The Carnage Factor."

It's worth mentioning that a sport like the luge - which apparently hadn't seen a fatality since 1975 - is considered relatively safe. In fact, to its eternal shame, the International Luge Federation declared Kumaritashvili responsible for his own death.

"The athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make the correct entrance to curve 16," read the statement "... There was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."

Then again, this same track is the fastest in the sport's history. Why? Was the Olympic luge establishment trying to catch up with the times, making its sport more contemporary by making it more perilous?

Lampley understands the code words cited in the evolution of a given event: "I don't care what the sport is, 'better' means faster. And more speed means more danger. You don't get to the limit until someone dies."

It's no accident that NASCAR - America's original extreme sport - hasn't had a fatality since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died at Daytona in 2001. NASCAR officials acknowledged their problems and did what was needed. By contrast, the IOC and the luge federation greeted the news of a young man's death by exonerating themselves. Only after declaring their track to be problem-free did they change it - moving the starting line to reduce speed, constructing a wall near the place where Kumaritashvili flew off course, and padding exposed steel beams. The modifications constitute a startlingly sneaky admission of culpability. In the meantime, you imagine these Olympic types telling themselves they were only giving the people what they wanted.

Maybe they're right. I went on YouTube this morning, punched in the requisite search words, and got a 2-minute and fifty second compilation of "Luge Crash videos." It was posted three years ago and has 1,620,420 hits.

Meanwhile, even the girly sports have become disaster porn. An excellent piece by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times notes the overwhelming popularity of videos that feature figure skaters being injured and humiliated in practice and competition. One video - a montage spliced together in time with a tune called "Take Me to the Hospital" - also has in excess of 1.3 million hits.

That people delight in the "the carnage factor" is nothing new. Lampley remembers being plucked out of grad school to work for ABC's "Wide World of Sports," a telecast that transformed a concussed Slovenian skier into a famous personification, "the agony of defeat."

When he started, the august Olympic assignments went to the likes of Howard Cosell, Jim McKay, Chris Schenkel and Frank Gifford. Lampley had to make his bones covering motorcycles on ice, ski flying and demolition derby.

He freely acknowledges they were novelties, cheap thrill events. Still, as you hear them today, they sound like Olympic sports.

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