Canadians are accused of limiting practice runs and turning luge racers into ‘crash-test dummies’ at Whistler.
The Olympic juggernaut rolls on in Vancouver – a $6bn (£4bn) celebration of sporting excellence and Canadian pride that has been seven years in the planning and waits for no man, not even one who lost his life in pursuit of what organisers called “his Olympic dream”, but which others suggested was a tragedy waiting to happen.
The glittering opening ceremony was dedicated to the memory of 21-year-old Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed after losing control of his luge in practice on the final turn of the Whistler sliding track.
The crowd rose as the Georgian team, their national flag draped in black, made its entrance into the arena. “May you carry his Olympic dream on your shoulders and compete with his spirit in your heart,” John Furlong, the head of the Vancouver games organising committee (Vanoc), told the athletes after they had taken their seats.
Stirring words, but as Furlong tried to frame Kumaritashvili’s death in a way that appealed to the sentimental instincts of the global audience, a more prosaic expression of the Olympic dream was taking place on the hill, where organisers issued a statement announcing the men’s luge event, in which the Georgian was due to compete, would go ahead as scheduled at 5pm local time.
“The technical officials of the FIL [International Luge Federation] were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track,” said the statement, before adding that changes would be made to the track at the spot where Kumaritashvili began to lose control of his luge.
When the mourning phase is over, no doubt lawyers acting on behalf of the luger’s family will seek to find out why it was necessary to make alterations if the track had no role to play in his death. It will draw attention to complaints from other competitors about a facility that has stretched the boundaries of safety in what is already a dangerous sport. “We are not crash-test dummies,” an Australian competitor said on Thursday.
Yet if these are issues for the lawyers somewhere down the line, more immediate questions may be asked by the Canadians of themselves, who, in pursuit of their own Olympic dream – 30 medals at least, with as many golds as possible – appear to have forgotten that national characteristic for which they are best known: politeness.
“Some say what defines us/is something as simple as please and thank you/and as for you’re welcome/well we say that too,” wrote Shane Kozycan in “We Are More”, a poem he delivered during the opening ceremony.
In normal times perhaps, but in the run-up to these games, the hosts – or at least the Canadian Olympic Committee – seemed to have mislaid their manners. “Own the podium,” it implored its athletes in an initiative aimed at ensuring the host nation finishes at the top of the medals table at these games. Money has been poured into training, while a hard-edged approach has been adopted in dealing with other teams, most noticeably in granting them only limited access to facilities such as the sliding track.
Such behaviour is within the Olympic rules, but it came across as distinctly un-Canadian at the time, and in the context of Friday’s death it seemed like a terrible misjudgment. Steven Holcomb of the US bobsleigh team said: “This track is one of the fastest and most difficult in the world, so I think keeping it closed and not letting people have access… made it very difficult. Then you have Olympic ice, which is even faster. Little mistakes become big mistakes, and big mistakes end in tragedy.”
Kumaritashvili was one of those who had relatively limited experience on the track. He spent a week there in November during training, according to reports, and had gone down the track 26 times in total. He had crashed once, as had the double Olympic champion, Armin Zöggeler of Italy.
“It would be speculation if I said the time period of practice was sufficient or was not,” said Georgia’s minister of sport Nikolos Rurua, before defending the luger against suggestions that he was inexperienced – or simply not good enough – to be competing at Olympic level. Rurua said: “He was a very progressive, strong athlete. It was his wish to compete at the Olympics, and he underwent a rigorous qualifying process. He was 44th in world rankings.”
Yet if the formalities of Olympic diplomacy required the minister to leave it at that, so sparing the feelings of the hosts, Holcomb felt no such compunction. “They limited the amount of access and training time we had on the track, while they let Canadians train on it as much as they wanted,” he said. “There were smaller nations that have never been down here before. It is kind of unfair and now it is a tragedy.” So much for the Olympic dream