The horrific death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in an Olympic training run today was horrible to hear about. Sports are supposed to be an outlet full of recreation and entertainment, an escape from the gloomy world of the front pages, but far too often, the grim realities of life intrude. Whether it's fatal NASCAR crashes, athletes like Mickey Renaud dying from heart failure, young athletes killed in gang violence or old legends slipping away after health challenges, or the tragic impact of concussions on the lives of former athletes, illness and death all too frequently find their way into our escapist world.
CTV, one of the main Canadian networks broadcasting the Olympics, did their best to maintain that escapist illusion today. They gave the Kumaritashvili crash a passing mention before dashing back to their glowing propagandic coverage of the torch relay. Bruce Arthur of the National Post called their treatment of the situation "Orwellian" and "macabre", two statements I strongly agree with. There are even reports (from CFL Manager of Digital Media Jaime Stein) that CTV has been removing comments critical of their coverage of the crash from their website. Trying to sweep tragedies under the rug is never the right approach. To be fair, we probably shouldn't expect better from CTV, given that their entire buildup to the Olympics (including having their own staffers carry the Olympic torch) shows that they're more interested in propaganda than journalism. This is still disappointing from them, though.
This crash demands more coverage because, like most sports-related tragedies, it isn't an isolated incident. Jeff Blair of The Globe And Mail had an excellent piece last Saturday on the Olympic sliding track, which will be used for luge, skeleton and bobsleigh events. The track is so steep that it set records for the fastest speed in both luge and bobsleigh on the World Cup circuit. It also features turns of up to 5 Gs, and sleds routinely average 2.5 to 3 Gs on their way down the track.*
*For those who need a physics refresher, g is the gravitational constant of acceleration, or how fast you'd accelerate towards Earth in free-fall if there was no air resistance. It's approximately 9.81 metres/second squared. Thus, three Gs is three times the normal acceleration due to gravity, and about 30 metres/second squared. It's also about the amount of maximum acceleration encountered during a Space Shuttle launch. The effects of G-force, and how much humans can tolerate, depends on the duration of the acceleration and the direction it's coming from, but suffice it to say that 3-5 Gs is a hell of a lot.
It's not just that the track is fast; in fact, Kumaritashvili was clocked at 144.3 km/h, well below the track record of 153.9 km/h. The problems arise from combining an extremely fast course with high G-force twists and turns. According to the above Montreal Gazette story, the crash came on the final turn, Turn 16, known as "The Thunderbird", when "Kumaritashvili hit the track's inside wall, flew in the air up and over the outside wall and struck the girder". His crash is far from the only one, though; we've seen tons of athletes crashing on the course during World Cup events and during this practice week. The track is so intense that according to Blair's story, the IOC has already told organizers for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi to keep their sliding course more restrained.
The question is now what should come next. Chris Chase has a well-reasoned piece up at Fourth-Place Medal arguing that the track's too dangerous for luge, and the entire event should be cancelled. I'm not sure that that's the correct solution, but it absolutely has to be considered. If the luge event is to go on, there must first be a careful investigation and precautions taken to avoid a reoccurence of this tragedy.
In my mind, this tragedy and the others mentioned above speak to a broader dilemna in sports, though. There are fine lines to be walked, and many questions that must be asked. In luge and bobsleigh, there must be a balance between speed, thrills and safety, but where should it lie? In football and hockey, there has to be a distinction between physical play and head shots, and the need to reduce concussions has to be balanced with the need to deliver a hard-hitting product, but which side should we err on and where do we draw the line? Should all athletes be tested for heart conditions, and if so, at what age do we start? If an athlete is found to have a heart condition or some other defect, should we ban them from sports to preserve their safety, or should we let them play at their own risk?
In my mind, there are no black-and-white answers to any of these questions, and they all need to be looked at, researched, analyzed and debated. We need more detailed coverage of these tragedies, not less, even if it damages our goal of escapism. That's why CTV made the wrong move, going from a depressing story that needed to be covered to a potentially uplifting one that didn't need to be focused on. In my mind, we need to take a hard look at these situations despite their tragic nature, rather than sweeping them under the rug and moving on to the next feel-good moment.