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“Swifter, Higher, Stronger”—or safer?

Posted by The Curmudgeon on February 14, 2010

Uh…isn’t that why we run the race?

In the wake of the tragic death of Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, an inquiry found that the luge course itself was not to blame, and that the unfortunate athlete was the victim of his own error—though some subsequent modifications were made that had the practical effect of slowing competitors slightly and decreasing the likelihood of their bodies being hurled off the course at speeds in the neighborhood of ninety miles per hour. Since that rendering, many have questioned the validity of the report and decried what they see as blaming the athlete for the inherent design deficiencies of the course. Indeed, within hours of the modifications, NBC’s Bob Costas questioned whether the course should have been made safer before the fatal accident—apparently implying that the course designer(s) may have been complicit in the young man’s death.

Now, let’s clarify one little matter: When hurtling down an icy, winding course — even at speeds appreciably slower than those encountered either before or after the modifications were completed — while perched upon a contraption that’s little more than close kin to the sled upon which you send your kid gliding gently down a hill, “safety” becomes very much a relative term. Given the environment and the speeds encountered, luge is a dangerous sport under even optimal conditions. Even at the comparatively “slow” speed of 80 MPH (most luge courses support speeds more in the 85 MPH range), that’s still substantially faster than the common highway speed limit of 70 MPH — and we’re all familiar with the horrendous specter of motorcycles crashing at that speed. For that matter, even four-wheel vehicles offer inadequate protection in such events. (It should be noted that as a practical matter the icy wall of a luge course is no more forgiving than asphalt under these circumstances.) Moreover, Kumaritashvili’s death resulted from high-velocity impact with an unpadded steel girder after simple physics determined that it was time for him to depart both his vehicle and the course. While it will no doubt be argued that a slower speed might have forestalled his loss of control, it must also be noted that others successfully negotiated the course (at even faster speeds) without incident. In the final analysis, Kumaritashvili committed what might otherwise have been a minor error; unfortunately, he did so in a most unforgiving place.

“Unforgiving” is a term common to many fields of endeavor. For example, many aircraft are characterized this way. One in particular was the F-104 “Starfighter,” built by Lockheed. In its time, it was an amazing piece of equipment, capable of astonishing performance; significantly, it was also widely viewed as notoriously unstable—and many pilots met their fate while flying these machines, giving them a reputation of being inherently dangerous. In examining aircraft performance further, though, one finds this is actually a characteristic sought by designers, as it is this very instability that enables the aircraft to perform at the extreme edge of controllability.

Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with three former F-104 pilots. Independently of one another, they all spoke in glowing terms, describing the aircraft as one of the most superb fighters ever built. Each also discounted the seemingly-high mortality rate of its pilots. And each expressly pronounced it as “unforgiving.” The common belief was that the aircraft was a pilot’s dream—and those who’d perished simply weren’t equal to the task. One was very blunt: “Bring your ‘A’ game; you won’t get a second chance. You stay ahead of it—or it kills you. That simple.”

One might be inclined to view the luge venue in Vancouver in much the same light. Described by many as an uncommonly fast course, it enables such performance at the cost of creating an environment intolerant of mistakes.

Risk is inherent in many sports. Countless skiers, for example, have sustained broken limbs, head trauma, internal injuries—and yes, death. Perhaps they leaned a little too far, misjudged a turn, or hit a nasty patch of ice. Skaters suffer frightful falls, resulting in similar injuries. (In the same segment that included Costas’s comment, Brian Williams presented a montage of mishaps featuring various winter Olympians that would give one pause.) While we cringe at the thought of athletes being killed in the name of sport, one must remember that with certain endeavors — luge being one — the risk is uncommonly high.

Another important note to consider: Nodar Kumaritashvili did not make the journey to Vancouver with the intent to go slow. Nor did his competitors. While the original luge course allowed faster speeds, it didn’t demand them—but no one seemed to be trying deliberately to slow down or to negotiate the course in anything other than the fastest possible time. Competition at its essence seeks to redefine the limits of human ability and endurance. The Olympics’ motto — Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Swifter, Higher, Stronger”) — is an acknowledgment that competition forces us to improve, propelling us to greatness…and athletes spend their careers constantly reaching for that extra fraction of an inch or one-hundredth of a second. Granted, raw ability must be complemented by technique; where success is measured against time, though, when stripped to essentials we ultimately “push the envelope” and strive to go faster—not slower.

Isn’t that why we run the race?

________

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2 Responses to ““Swifter, Higher, Stronger”—or safer?”

  1. Lynne Z said

    Loved your last question. Of course! My elementary school was located atop a steep hill. During the winter – at recess – we kids would take metal pie plates or pieces of cardboard and slide down, making a competition out of the affair. I “did the luge” and raced over ice-covered rocks, past slim pine trees and ended up in the pond, bloodied and broken (arm). I went further and faster and better than anyone else. And that, my friends was one of the thrills of my life!

  2. Laura said

    And I was the other….right? right? right?

    .

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