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A Ghost that Hovers Over the Icy Track

MitchI've been on a luge sled. And I've crashed.

I've felt my jaw vibrate as my helmet dribbled on the ice. Felt my shoulders smack against the walls of a straightaway. Felt the discombobulation of looking down over my feet as I tried desperately to steer, pinballing off the sides, finally separating from the sled and scraping my butt down the frozen track.

I was younger then and traveling with the U.S. luge team through Europe. The lugers sort of adopted me -- I was the first journalist most of them had ever spoken to -- and before long, they had me on the track, trying a minor-league version of what they did.

The luge community in those days was small, tight, brave and low-tech, like the fighter pilots who pioneered our space program. The Americans mostly stayed in cheap hotels, slept three to a room, traveled in a van, ate candy bars for training and fixed their own sleds. They were funny, grubby, detail-oriented and fearless -- their love of speed was NASCAR on caffeine -- but there was one thing that lowered their eyes and softened their voices.

The words "he came out of the track."

The drama of speed and g-forces

You never wanted to do that. It was almost impossible. The gravitational forces of going 70 or 80 m.p.h. slammed you into the ice (they are what bounce your helmet during the curves) and while you can smack and bruise yourself all over the serpentine walls, you are pretty much in the track to stay.

But there is a brief window, a split second really, coming out of a curve, where the walls get low and where it is possible, if you lose control and are going too fast and the ice gods are not with you, that you could go airborne and fly out of the track.

Which is what happened to an Olympic luger Friday morning, during a training run, on the day the Vancouver Winter Games were to begin. His name was Nodar Kumaritashvili, from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. He was a back-of-the-pack competitor, only 21 years old.

When I crashed, I was going 30 m.p.h.

He was going almost 90.

And he's dead.

"He came out of the track." When NBC broadcast the news, its luge commentator, Duncan Kennedy, choked up and sobbed. Kennedy was just a teenager when I was covering the team, a teenager in love with icy speed like the rest of them. Now here he was, retired, a commentator unable to comment. He knew it was the worst thing that could happen at the worst possible time, the Winter Olympics, the only moment luge is ever brought from the shadows into the light.

Because of that, people need to understand.

This is tragic. But it is not typical.

The desire to place blame

Luge is not a place to die. Mortality incidents, considering the sport -- no pads, only a helmet, lying supine on a speeding sled -- are exceedingly rare.

But several forces are at work here. First is the unquenched thirst for faster tracks. I don't know why the Vancouver track was designed so slickly, but it's not as if luge looks better on TV if the sliders go 95 m.p.h. vs. 85 m.p.h. This must be addressed.

Also -- and this went on 25 years ago when I covered the sport -- host countries often limit practice time for foreign teams, hoping to preserve a home-ice advantage. Apparently, this went on in Canada. Thus, most Olympic sliders are facing a relatively unfamiliar track while under the most intense pressure to succeed. Such gamesmanship is way too dangerous.

But beyond that -- although an international media will no doubt blow this thing up and scold everyone in sight -- mostly this was luge being luge, a dangerous canvass with a small rip that in the worst combination of circumstances can suck up an athlete and take him away.

"He came out of the track." The voices soften. The eyes lower. Only this time, the whole world was watching and is not likely to forget.
(C) 2010 BY THE DETROIT FREE PRESS DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

2 Responses »

  1. This is indeed a tragedy. And I agree that Nodar's fatal crash is very rare for the sport. But with tracks getting faster and faster, will debilitating or fatal crashes become the norm? I agree: "Such gamesmanship is way too dangerous." My heart breaks for his family, friends and countrymen. I only hope that we don't soon forget and that we take a long hard look at the safety of all tracks so history doesn't have to repeat itself.

  2. I respectfully disagree with this otherwise well written article. If the walls are too low and a rider can be thrown, then human ingenuity (and new construction, as the Vancouver officials have now done) can keep a rider inside the track. If not, then the sport should be questioned: it is no longer a sport but something else. I sincerely hope that those responsible for the low wall, the proximity of the steel pillars, and the new and unannounced shades that impeded Nodar's view of the turns, will be identified; I hope there is transparency, apology, compensation, and a clear message to the family that Nodar's death will not be in vain. If something (low walls) is understood to have the potential to end young lives, and correcting it is within human power, then not to correct it reads rather like ... wanton destruction of life. That's not sport, or athletics.