Thursday, February 25, 2010

Officials try to dodge blame in luge death

Officials try to dodge blame in luge death
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports
Feb 14, 2010
Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel

WHISTLER, British Columbia – Olympic officials continued to claim Saturday that the Whistler Sliding Centre always was a safe, appropriate track. They said this even though they moved the start line and reworked the ice surface to slow speeds, and they also put up a new safety wall at the end of the turn where Nodar Kumaritashvili died Friday after flying off the track and slamming into a metal pole.

The words don’t match the actions. If there was nothing to worry about, then why change a thing? At this point, it hardly matters. At least there were actions, even if they didn’t accompany admissions.

American Tony Benshoof was first down the track after the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Some of the thrill-seeking competitors complained about slower speeds, which was to be expected. Sometimes athletes need to be protected from themselves. Until forced, hockey goalies refused to wear masks, and NASCAR drivers balked at restrictor plates that kept their cars from hitting impossible-to-control speeds.

“The changes that they made were positive,” American Tony Benshoof said on the first day of the men’s singles event here. “It’s significantly slower, significantly easier and significantly safer. Personally, I’d rather go from up top because that’s kind of my personality and my driving style. But I think, generally speaking, it was a good decision.”

This illustrates why there needs to be rules and why there needs to be responsible officials. Luge lacked those in the run-up to Friday’s fatal crash and showed a pathetic bent when officials blamed Kumaritashvili’s death wholly on Kumaritashvili just hours after the tragedy.

The Whistler track was built too fast and no one admitted that better than International Luge Federation president Josef Fendt. Back in 2008, he watched the track open and was stunned at the escalating speeds – up to 92.47 mph.

“This is not in the interest of our International Luge Federation, and it makes me worry,” Fendt said then. He declared that future tracks shouldn’t exceed 87 mph.

The horror here is that Fendt didn’t act as Olympians began hitting speeds of up to 96 mph in training sessions here. Kumaritashvili was clocked at just under 90 when a small mistake exiting Turn 15 turned wound up killing him. The promising 21-year-old didn’t stand much of a chance.

“It’s a serious business,” Canadian coach Wolfgang Staudinger said. “It’s not like sliding on the kids’ hill on crazy carpet.”

Par for their behavior, Olympic officials had trashed Kumaritashvili’s experience level in the wake of the crash, piling on a guy who was unable to defend himself or his reputation. Once that got out on international broadcasts, it became the defining reason for the crash – the Olympic and luge officials winning the most ugly of public relations narrative wars.

Even if it were the case, Kumaritashvili deserved better, deserved a day to rest in peace without being picked apart.

And who knows if inexperience really was the problem? The people that knew Kumaritashvili best, his Georgian coaches, have defended him. They noted he was ranked 44th in the world and came from a family of sliders.

“Insinuation and speculation about his experience is unfair,” said Nikolos Rurua, minister of the Georgian team. “[Kumaritashvili] was well qualified, [a] very hard worker in training.”

But that’s how the Olympics work; it’s never the fault of the IOC or its sub-groups. These guys make the NCAA look magnanimous and becoming.

In this case, it always goes back to the track. If it was a joke by Fendt’s own previous calculations, what changed? At an awkward press conference Saturday morning, he tried to backtrack and shift his words, saying he was placing speed limits only on future tracks, such as the Sochi, Russia, course for the 2014 Winter Games. Why then but not now? Well, he wouldn’t say. It was a lot of circular talk.

“We are not saying that [the track] is too fast, but the track is fast,” Fendt said, before ordering it be slowed.

Look, no one wanted this young man to die. No one set out to build a track that would be so fast and so challenging that simply mistakes can prove fatal. It just happened.

And the reason is the course. It was the speed, the slope, the row of metal poles looming outside a turn exit without proper walling.

Luge officials knew they had pushed the envelope. They said as much. Then the athletes showed up and began sounding alarms. No one wanted Friday’s nightmare scenario, yet no one displayed the courage to step up and prevent it, to say enough was enough too soon rather than too late. In some ways, that’s understandable; it’s a human facility we all have faced.

That no one was man enough to acknowledge they were wrong, to publicly declare they made a mistake, to even second guess their decisions garners less sympathy.

In the end, no one admitted a thing. They just put up a board, slowed the track down and moved on.

It’s the best and only apology Nodar Kumaritashvili’s family is going to get.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist.

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