Olympic glory comes at a dark cost

February 15, 2009

By Doug Firby
Alberta Columnist/Senior Editor
Troy Media

Doug Firby
Doug Firby

CALGARY, AB,  Feb. 15, 2010/Troy Media/ –  Rarely has the culture of hubris and the hypocrisy of greed writ so large as on the tens of millions of screens tuned worldwide to the Vancouver Olympics.

Ready to supplicate at the altars of pre-ordained athletic heroes and pay homage to the corporate billions that determine our daily lives, you could almost taste the anger of the high mucky-mucks as a young man from a little-known country and an unpronounceable name turned the mega-circus on its ear and called its very existence into question.

It speaks volumes that had  Nodar Kumaritashvili not slammed himself at fatal speed into a post at the end of a frantic luge run in Vancouver, the vast majority of us would have never heard of him  – or given much thought to the close tie between Olympic glory and Olympic gore.

First Olympic luger to die since 1964

As it happens, we will remember Nodar Kumaritashvili, but not for his athletic prowess. Instead, he becomes a dark footnote, a statistic in the record books – the first luger to die at the Olympics since 1964. He is an annoying piece of road kill on the reckless road to fame that has become the Olympic fantasy, joining lesser victims who devote their lives for a fleeting moment in the sun and the aggrandizement of the Olympic establishment, then sink to faceless obscurity and aimless lives.

Kumaritashvili is a poster boy for the Olympic meatgrinder. Just 21, he was a proud young ambassador for the former Soviet state. His presence alone in the luge event was a national honour, but, with a record that placed him 44th on the world stage, he was not a medal contender. In fact, some commentators have described him as an Olympic “tourist”; one of those athletes just good enough to qualify, but who really has no place sliding down a track that has scared even the elite of the luge world.

In living sickening color the world watched

The sickening footage of the seconds leading up to his crash tell the tale: Kumaritashvili is hitting speeds in excess of 140 kmh as he careens through difficult slopes near the bottom of the run. In a split second, he banks too high, overcorrects, and then is airborne on a trajectory that lands him square into a steel post. Witnesses knew instantly there was no chance he could survive that collision.

Thanks to YouTube, within minutes anyone could watch the deadly moment over and over again. Despite some commentators calling for removal of the grisly scene, TV executives saw baksheesh in the bloodbath and we saw it in real time, slo mo, stop action, backwards, and even in animation.

High-tech amphitheatre of death

To the extent that he was way over his head, Kumaritashvili’s death is his own fault. But much of the blame must lie at the foot of Olympic organizers, who, in a quest to have the biggest and best, created a track with an eye-popping vertical drop of 152 metres over its 1,352 metre length. With that slope, it sends lugers to speeds approaching 154 k/h – fully 10 km faster than any athlete in the sport has travelled before. The designers have taken their cue from race car driver Mario Andretti, who once uttered, “If you feel like you’re under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” The athletes called themselves “crash dummies.”

Immediate modifications were made to the track, even though Olympic officials contend it was safe before. The wall where Kumaritashvili crashed into the post was raised, and officials announced the men would begin racing from the lower women’s start in an effort to reduce the terminal speed. All the same, Kumaritashvili’s teammate, Levan Gureshidze and Ruben Gonzalez from Argentina took a pass on Saturday’s runs. Who can blame them?

Choking back crocodile tears, Olympic officials offered their condolences, and maintained they had considered cancelling the luge event after the tragedy.  “We are heartbroken beyond words,” said Vanoc CEO John Furlong. Now on with the games.

Nothing changes: It’s all about money

Does it come as any surprise that they decided to go ahead? With a world-wide audience in the billions and corporate sponsorships on the line, grief will always take a back seat to greed. The modern Olympics have always been like that, claiming to exist for higher purpose, and yet vulnerable to the same commercial and political pressures that infect the pro-sport world.

And there’s the rub. Kumaritashvili was just a 21-year-old kid from a poor country, stoked with the sense of infallibility that comes with his age, and driven to take crazy risks by Olympic fever and the pay-off that would come if he could just have that one life-changing run. This time, the dice just didn’t roll his way.

It is up to the wise old minds of the IOC to treat those eager young athletes in good faith, putting safety ahead of spectacle. Instead, they have once again failed those young people, allowing them to take stupid life risks in the fleeting pursuit of glory.

Today, as the luge events continue on the very track where Kumaritashvili died, we watch with heavy hearts and troubled souls. Because those who allow this spectacle to continue have blood on their hands.

Doug Firby is former editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald, and Alberta columnist for Troy Media Corp.

Channels: Canada Free Press, Portage La Prairie, February 17, the Pembroke Observer, February 20, the Yorkton News Review, February 25, Slave Lake Lakeside Leader, March 5, 2010

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One Response to "Olympic glory comes at a dark cost"

  1. Eternal   February 16, 2010 at 6:03 am

    You are certainly entitled to your opinion, but completely disagree. The bottom line is, athletes (especially those who pursue sports such as this) are aware that they are taking risks. For most, I believe it is the thrill of the risk that is the guiding force behind what they do.

    It is tragic that this young man died, but this could have happened while he was training at home.

    It's also quite an assumption to say that Olympic officials were shedding "crocodile tears" – how could you possibly know how they actually feel?

    The coverage of the accident and anything else we see is created by the Media (of which you belong). The Olympic organizers don't choose to replay the accident from every angle and speed, the Media does!

    It would also negatively affect the economy if the Olympics were cancelled. Think about the number of people employed directly or indirectly as a result of the Olympics.

    Regarding whether the Olympics should continue . . . of course. Any athlete or performer who is commited to their passion would want the "show to go on".

    If a person dies "on the job", would they close the entire company they worked for so as not to appear greedy? Of course not! Life and all that it includes must go on.