Nodar Kumaritashvili: Never Forget
The charter of the International Olympic Committee states that one of the Committee's primary objectives is to "encourage and support the promotion of ethics in sports." The circumstances surrounding the death of Georgian luge slider Nodar Kumaritashvili expose the charter as an absolute lie.
On the cusp of last week's opening ceremonies, Kumaritashvili died practicing on a track many believed to be extremely dangerous. Shortly before his death, the 21-year-old Kumaritashvili spoke to his father, David, who said to the AP, "He told me: 'Dad, I really fear that curve.' I'm a former athlete myself, and I told him: 'You just take a slower start.' But he responded: 'Dad, what kind of thing you are teaching me? I have come to the Olympics to " try to win.'... He told me: 'I will either win or die.' Kumaritashvili's fear had been shared by other luge sliders since the day the track opened in 2008 and course designers said that it was "faster, steeper and more intense than any track in history." United States luge athlete Mark Grimmette said the very day before Kumaritashvili's death, "I think we're probably getting close, too close, to the edge." Bob Storey, president of the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing, said of the track's design: "That was not an engineering decision. That was a commercial decision." Hannah Campbell-Pegg of Australia also commented, "To what extent are we just little lemmings that they throw down this track and we're crash-test dummies?" Even Armin Zoeeggeler of Italy, the world's top luger, crashed earlier in the day.
The more luge sliders complained about impending peril, the less they were heard. The IOC and the International Luge Federation (FIL) should right now be begging for forgiveness, demanding a thorough investigation, and already starting to make restitution to Kumaritashvili's family. They should count themselves as lucky that they won't be nabbed for involuntary manslaughter. Instead, they have chosen a path of ugly arrogance that recalls the imperious former IOC President Avery Brundage at his absolute worst.
Even for people who oversee winter sports, this is very cold-blooded. VANOC (the IOC's host body) and FIL issued a response with a tone of barely concealed annoyance that Kumaritashvili had to selfishly go and die. Taking a mere ten hours to "investigate" how Kumaritashvili died, they blamed him for his own death on Curve 16, writing, "There was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track." The subtext was, "Time to move on. Get back to work and on that track."
The incredibly callous and patently suspect "official finding" is rooted in the true mission of the IOC: maxing out television revenue. The highly profitable niche of extreme winter sports has put pressure on the Winter Games to supply a product with ever more speed and spectacle. The result is the first luger to die on the track in thirty-four years. To slow down the games out of respect for the dead, or even to investigate how so many concerns could be ignored, would be to slow a carnival that has generated 26.4 million average viewers for the first five nights of NBC's pretaped television primetime broadcast. (These numbers are 22 percent higher than the 2006 games in Torino.) Their argument is that they're not at fault because they're the IOC; therefore, they can't be at fault.
But the IOC's actions after the blood was mopped off the ice show that they know very well knew where to place blame. After insisting that their oh-so-extensive ten-hour investigation found the track to be safe, they had workers put up a high wooden wall just past the curve where Kumaritashvili died. They also put padding on the exposed metal beams before the finish line and they changed the men's starting point, which will slow their speed on the track. After questioned on these hurried moves, they said that it was all done out of concern for the emotional state of Kumaritashvili's teammates and competitors, a feint toward sympathy that even the New York Times called "bogus."
To further make sure that we forget that the 2010 Vancouver Olympics started with death, Steve Capus, president of NBC News, has handed down a directive that the graphic video of Kumaritashvili's death is not to be shown on any of NBC's news programming without his permission. In addition, this policy has apparently been adopted by NBC Sports. Out of sight, out of mind. As for Kumaritashvili, his body has already been shipped back to his native Georgia. His family is grieving, his mother throwing herself on his coffin as it traveled the streets toward his home.
Now the sports pages are filled with stories about Lindsay Vonn, Shani Davis, and Bode Miller. (Nodar who?) But while the games go on, we should never forget. After all, if this is how the IOC treats its athletes, heaven help the rest of us. As the games get underway in London in 2012 or Russia 2014, remember that there is blood on the tracks.
[Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]