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Olympic tragedy questions safety

While I expected to watch NBC's coverage of the Vancouver Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony Friday evening, I was confronted by the horrific stop-motion images of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili's death. During a morning practice run on the Whistler Mountain Olympic luge track, Kumaritashvili, coming out of the 16th curve at approximately 90 mph, launched over the track wall and collided with an exposed steel beam. NBC televised it all.

Throughout the years, modern media has shown a devotion to bringing viewers the most gruesome and raw coverage. Footage of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the recent devastation in Haiti, has certainly demonstrated this abiding commitment. But the tape of Kumaritashvili's death pushes the envelope.

I can rationalize the broadcast of military and natural disaster footage as being useful. It plays a large part in garnering community support for the troops and suffering individuals who need it. Sharing a visual play-by-play of a fatal accident is something altogether different — a questionable and perhaps immoral decision on the part of the network.

Yet, the widespread exposure of the Georgian luger's death seemed to only momentarily dampen the excitement of the games. A mere 24 hours after the tragic accident, practice resumed on the hazardous track, and no alterations were made to the competition schedule.

Discussion has gone back and forth as to whether the death was a result of human error or a lack of safety precautions taken in and around the track. Even though the Whistler track is admittedly the fastest ever used in the Olympics, many are willing to attribute Kumaritashvili's death to his own inexperience. The luger was ranked 44th in the world, and likewise, his ability to adequately maneuver his sled has been questioned. But his death followed at least six serious crashes on the track since the start of practice.

While the official statement of the Vancouver Olympic Committee remains that "there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track," they are currently raising the walls around the treacherous curve and have altered the competition path to exclude the first stretch of the ice profile to reduce the athletes' speed. Although this is far from an admission of guilt or responsibility for the tragic accident, it does suggest that greater measures could have been taken initially to protect the athletes.

Out of the seven all-time Olympic sporting fatalities, two have taken place on the luge track. The Innsbruck Winter Olympics in 1964 — the year the luge event became part of the games — marked the last time a luger died in Olympic practice. Luge is, without a doubt, a dangerous event; yet, the International Olympic Committee has taken pride in the remarkable care given to their athletes' well-being over the course of the 114 years the modern Olympics has been in existence. Kumaritashvili's death will not prevent the Vancouver Olympics from going forward, but it still may tarnish their coveted reputation.

So far, showing the video has accomplished little more than what verbal communication would have accomplished, evoking our sorrow for the young man and his family. Yet the fact that the world watched as Kumaritashvili was launched into a steel structural beam just feet from the track has the potential to wreak havoc on the Olympic community. For the average viewer, the graphic, devastating image is not likely diminished by factors like his ranking or level of luge experience. Although it was arguably an inappropriate move to share the last moments of Kumaritashvili's life and career with a television audience, maybe that mistake can be reconciled. Public opinion could play a large role in ensuring more regard is given to precautions, like padding the hundreds of beams that surround luge tracks.

For me, the insignificant impact that Kumaritashvili's death has had on the Olympic committee, his competitors and the rest of the athletes participating in the games is quite shocking. I have little doubt that watching a teammate or an opponent lose his life as a result of his sport would cause me to walk away. Perhaps that's just another reminder that I'm not cut out to be an Olympian.

But, as far removed as I may be from being an Olympian, the sobering truth is that I probably had more commonalities with 21-year-old Kumaritashvili than differences.

Larissa Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English and art history. Her column "Definition of Insanity" runs on alternate Thursdays.


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