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

March.

“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

computer simulations.

“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

limit.

“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

year.

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

disaster.”

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

safety.”

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

dangerous.”

“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

barometer.

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

Committee.

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

it.”

Meantime, one person who vows to do everything possible to

prevent another tragedy at the games is the man in charge of it

all.

“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

future.”