Crucial safety reviews lie ahead after Olympics
With a death on a terrifyingly fast sliding track destined to be
a legacy of the Vancouver Games, Olympic officials are looking for
a way to balance their motto of “citius, altius, fortius” with
the critical element of safety.
“People say the more danger, the better. This is stupid,” said
Rene Fasel, who headed the IOC’s coordination commission for
Vancouver. “Safety of athletes must be the No. 1 priority. … We
have to put limits.”
The death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run, hours
before the Olympic flame was even lit, not only cast a pall over
the games, but sparked a hard-edged debate that followed. At its
center is the question of how far to push the envelope.
The International Olympic Committee and sports federations
conduct safety reviews after each games. This time, there literally
was a post-mortem, too.
There have been roughly 30 luge and bobsled crashes on the
Whistler sliding course, inflicting several injuries and prompting
two Swiss bobsled teams to withdraw. The women’s Alpine downhill
course unnerved some of the world’s best skiers and left others
dazed after bone-jarring spills.
Hurtling down mountains at breakneck speed, soaring off ramps
for triple backflips and flying down chutes of ice at nearly 100
mph all have one thing in common – danger. Yet some argue that the
risk factor is crucial to the appeal of games.
Almost immediately after these Olympics end next Sunday, the IOC
will begin weighing all arguments and listening to all sides and
decide how to move forward, well past the next winter carnival in
Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
Under most scrutiny is the International Luge Federation, which
has blamed the fatal crash on human error rather than the track. It
hopes to release its in-depth safety findings by the end of
“Something good has got to come out of this tragedy,” former
Canadian Olympic luger Chris Wightman said. “There’s new ideas.
There’s so much to think about and reconsider.”
Those who know and love the sports in question already are
brimming with opinions: Tighten qualification standards to weed out
unprepared athletes; require a hefty minimum number of training
runs; slow down the sliding tracks.
The Sochi track isn’t built yet, but organizers already said
that it is designed to be 6-9 mph (10-15 kph) slower than the one
in Whistler and that course safety will be monitored via 3-D
“We will learn from this tragedy,” said Dmitry Chernyshenko,
head of the Sochi organizing committee. “We are creating
additional safety factors to avoid any unexpected problems. Safety
is the most important factor.”
Indeed, IOC medical chief Arne Ljungqvist questioned the very
logic behind the drive for speed in sliding and skiing.
“It’s different from track and field where there have been
attempts to make speedy tracks,” he said. “In these events, there
are no records registered. … The competition would be just as
fascinating with lower speeds and lower risks.
“We are concerned about the tendency that there seems to be
increased speed in all these speed events,” he said, “and it
increases the dangers. The higher speed you have, the smaller is
the margin to correct any mistakes.”
The IOC has taken numerous safety steps over the years –
lowering the obstacles in the three-day equestrian event, requiring
protective headgear in boxing and hockey, setting tougher
qualification standards to preclude another “Eddie the Eagle,”
the British plasterer-turn-ski jumper who barely got airborne in
the 1988 Calgary Games.
However, Fasel said even tougher screening may be needed.
“On one side we want to be global and universal,” he said.
“How far do we go? Who do you accept? In team sports,
qualification is simple, but in individual sports there must be a
“If some federations do not, we might have to be the ones to
put the limit.”
Debates over safety have flared often in previous games –
sometimes with the athletes divided among themselves. Some top
women hockey players with the powerful U.S. and Canadian teams
would like the freedom to check, as the men do, but accept the
kinder-and-gentler rules as necessary to help spread the sport in
countries where hockey has no roots. Similarly, top women skiers at
some past Olympics have complained that the downhill courses were
too easy – in contrast to what some judged to be too dangerous this
The Vancouver women’s downhill was marred by several spectacular
crashes, including one that badly bruised five-time Olympic
medalist Anja Paerson of Sweden. The most dangerous jump on the
course wasn’t shaved down by officials until after the race, even
though skiers had known beforehand of its perils.
“It doesn’t take people wrecking off it to know it’s
dangerous,” said Thomas Vonn, husband of downhill champion Lindsey
Vonn. “Obviously, it’s downhill racing and it’s always going to be
dangerous. But you can minimize risk before it turns into a
Cesare Vaciago, chief executive of the 2006 Turin Olympics and
also a member of the IOC’s Sochi coordination commission, said
national Olympic committees should be more vigilant in keeping
unprepared athletes out of the riskiest events.
“It’s hard to extend to organizers the task of saying ‘This guy
cannot race in luge,”’ Vaciago said. “The NOCs must put more
severe standards on participation.”
Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Rudge agrees, saying
world-class athletes in risky sports are apt to push themselves to
extremes in the quest to win, leaving safety measures in the hands
of those who oversee their sports.
“The athletes are not going to hold back, if he or she is in a
competitive environment and has to beat somebody else,” Rudge
said. “So there’s a certain incumbency on the regulatory bodies to
make sure when the athletes push as hard as they can, they’re doing
so in an environment that’s provided every possibility for
But he also said: “If you really dumb down the track too much,
to let everyone in, then you’re going to diminish the thrill of the
pursuit of excellence.”
Wightman, an analyst for Canada’s CTV network, said officials
should insist that luge competitors actually make every practice
run offered them and – if appropriate – acclimate themselves slowly
to tracks that are unfamiliar.
“There were times in my career where I was scared,” he said.
“We’ve all had that fear – not necessarily knowing how to deal
with a new track. There’s a very methodical way you learn the track
– you start low and move up curve by curve. It’s not your right to
be at the top of the track.”
Wightman also suggested the luge fields could be reduced – for
example, paring the men’s field from 40 to 30.
Bob Storey, president of the International Bobsled and Toboggan
Federation, said he wants to wait for the competition to finish
before settling on issues to tackle in his review. But he has
voiced frustration at the controversy over the Whistler track – and
whether there had been enough early warnings about it to warrant
modifications before the games.
“Everybody knew this was a challenging track – all new tracks
are,” Storey said. “But it’s certainly not the most
“At the Olympic games, people for many different reasons decide
they do or don’t like things,” he added. “When the track first
opened, lots of coaches who didn’t know how to coach here yet would
mumble and grumble. Then people go down, people get used to it. In
the end, the athletes usually love it – but there might be some who
don’t like it.”
Looking ahead, Storey said track designers need to strike a fine
balance – creating challenges but not excessive danger.
“It’s our responsibility to set criteria,” he said. “And we
have to be careful that people coming to the track have enough
experience to deal with it.”
One example is 56-year-old Venezuelan luger Werner Hoeger. A
veteran of two previous Olympics, Hoeger injured himself in a crash
on the Whistler track in November and complained that it was too
dangerous. However, there was sentiment in luge circles that an
athlete of Hoeger’s age shouldn’t be used as a safety
The man who designed the Olympic luge course, Udo Gurgel of
Germany, told Sports-Bild magazine that perhaps track walls should
be raised by more than a foot (40 to 50 centimeters) on future
courses. But making a risk-proof course may not be possible.
“To make it 100 percent safe, you’d need to put the track in a
tube, and that’s really not what the sport is about,” said Tim
Gayda, director of sport for the Vancouver Organizing
VANOC has noted that more than 30,000 luge, bobsled and skeleton
runs were made on the Whistler track before the games, with neither
of the two federations issuing public danger warnings.
Some national teams complained that their sliders were not
accommodated by Canada for an adequate number of training runs in
the weeks and months before the games. The Canadians, however, said
they abided by all federation rules on track access.
Gilbert Felli, the IOC’s executive director of the games, said
the customary route for conveying athletes’ safety concerns is
through meetings with team captains – “and they have not done
Meantime, one person who vows to do everything possible to
prevent another tragedy at the games is the man in charge of it
“There is one thing that is certain,” said IOC president
Jacques Rogge, referring to Kumaritashvili’s death. “I will do
everything in my power that this should not happen again in the