Olympic Reflections

I write this column the day after the close of the 2010 Paralympic Games. The months of February and March have been quite extraordinary for people like me who make a living in the amateur sport sector. Risks and legalities aside, I am convinced that these Games changed our country. Certainly, they have made a political and budgetary mark: when was the last time a Speech from the Throne opened with a two minute discourse on amateur sports?

For this month I would like to write about one legal aspect of Vancouver 2010. Specifically, the tragic death of Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, on the opening day of the Games. While there are many other legal issues arising from the Games (such as intellectual property protection – given that the Olympic brand is the most diligently protected brand in the world, this is quite an interesting topic!), this one took a front seat in the media and is also a natural extension of my musings last month when I wrote about the Tale of Two Schools.

Most people will remember that the opening day of the Games was grim indeed –a 21-year old athlete from Georgia died tragically during a practice run on the luge track in Whistler. For the first few hours after the accident, Canadian news outlets ran the video, and having seen it once, I can attest that it was horrific. Thankfully, after a few hours, media executives made the decision to stop showing the images. However, these videos remain available for viewing on the Internet.

After the death, there was much soul-searching, finger-pointing and blame-shifting.  Reports emerged that the track was steeper and faster than any other in the world and that athletes were traveling at far higher speeds than was intended. VANOC blamed the IOC who blamed the International Federation who blamed the facility designer (perhaps it was not in that precise order – essentially though, no one accepted responsibility). Things may become clearer in a few months when the international federations responsible for the track and the competition (FIBT and FIL) complete their investigations.

After Kumaritashvili’s death, the track was shut down for two days so that the area where he crashed could be provided with higher sliding walls and better protection. Some corners further up the course were shaved and shaped differently. The luge races were restructured to have the men start at the women’s start and the women start at the junior’s start. It was acknowledged by several experts that all these risk treatments served more of a public relations purpose than a risk management objective.

I have mixed feelings about who, if anyone, was responsible for this death. Many of my colleagues in sport were quick to lay blame – “the track was unnecessarily dangerous”, “the organizers should have made changes sooner when people complained about the high speed”, or “athletes from foreign countries should have been given greater access to the track beforehand to become accustomed to its challenges” are examples of my friends’ reactions.

I would like to think that I am less reactive and more principled in my responses to this accident. Continuing on my theme from my last column here (A Tale of Two Schools), risk management is much more nuanced than it first appears. Risks do not exist in a vacuum. There is an entire underlying context that must shape our thinking about what level of risk is acceptable or tolerable in a given set of circumstances.

As a sports risk expert, here are my thoughts about this tragedy. These are my personal opinions and not the opinions of the Centre for Sport and Law or Imagine Canada.

Participants in an Olympic Games, in nearly all cases, are adults who are highly trained and skilled and who are already the best in the world at their athletic calling. They compete in the most elite and rarified of international competitions. Their life is about taking risks: as athletes, they postpone education, careers, relationships and families to pursue their elusive athletic goals. They take risks daily in training and weekly in intense competition. They are not like the ‘weekend warrior’, who should know better. Elite athletes do know better: they have a full and pure appreciation of the risks they need to take to be successful. And they take these risks every day.

There are a handful of sports that involve pure speed and as a result, require that athletes push the envelope every minute of every day. Life hangs in the balance. In sports such as car racing, downhill skiing, downhill mountain biking, and virtually all the sliding sports including bobsleigh, luge and skeleton, the only thing between the athlete and his or her certain death is the discretionary exercise by the athlete of caution and control. In that the objective is to get from point A to point B faster than anyone else, and there are no built-in obstacles to naturally hinder that pursuit, remaining safe has everything to do with the athlete and little to do with the racetrack, mountain slope or icy track.

My counter to my colleague who said “we should be able to guarantee the safety of the athlete” was, “the minute you guarantee the athlete’s safety, you eliminate the athletic contest”. This is especially true in the new age of Olympic competition, where what prevails is not necessarily the tradition or inherent integrity of a given sport, but rather its commercial and spectator appeal. The greater the danger, the more the appeal!

My view was shared by the many lugers in the Olympic competition who complained that, after the accident, they were reduced to racing on a “kinder” course (as in the German word for childlike). Moving men to the women’s start and women to the junior’s start is not unlike telling the world’s best male golfers, the night before a PGA major championship, that they will be playing from the women’s tee boxes. I can relate to their total dissatisfaction with this course of action. The luge athletes in the Olympics had spent four years preparing to race the race of their lives, at a specific place and point in time - and on the eve of this competition they were told that the ground rules had been unilaterally changed.

I have a few more comments that relate to some of the specific circumstances of this tragedy, as opposed to the general aspects of Olympic luge competition. Kumaritashvili was a young man from a small village in rural Georgia, who had competed in luge for less than a year. He had relatives who were well connected in international sport circles and who could give him an entrée into the world of elite sport. Experience as an Olympian, given his modest circumstances, would set him up to succeed in life. An insider has told me that his luge experience was very limited, and that he had only completed one successful practice run at Whistler from the start gate - having crashed in all the others, including his fatal crash on his 6th and final practice run from the top of the course.

It is for this reason that the IOC has suggested that appropriate bodies must investigate not only the degree of difficulty of this particular sliding track, but also the qualification process that was used to determine who would get to venture out and test themselves on this track. It is easy to condemn VANOC officials for creating a dangerous facility. But the circumstances of this event must also be considered. Sport is inherently risky: luge and other sliding sports are inherently very risky. Remove the risk and you dilute the essence of sport. For this reason, risk management in sport (and particularly, in elite sport) is a fine balancing act.

Originally published: Imagine Canada - Risk Management Expert Column (March 2010)

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