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Death and Injuries Raise Safety Concerns at Winter Games

February 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Friday's fatal luge crash before the opening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics highlighted the dangers of high speeds and slick surfaces in winter sports. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Olympic historian and author David Wallechinsky from Vancouver about the safety risks athletes face.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: Olympic athletes competing at the tops of their games and assuming the risks that come with it.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Vancouver today, mourners gathered at a memorial service for the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed in a crash during a training run on Friday.

The incident brought into focus the dangers of some Olympic competitions. In newer sports and older ones, in their pursuit of the Olympic motto, faster, higher, stronger, athletes in these Winter Games continue to push the limits of human performance and, in some cases, raise new questions about safety.

David Wallechinsky has chronicled the evolution of the Olympics in several books, including “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.” He joins us now from Vancouver.

Well, let’s start with Friday’s accident and its aftermath. You have been talking to people there. Where do things stand now?

DAVID WALLECHINSKY, Olympic historian: Well, right now, what concerns me is that the International Luge Federation seems to be trying to cover up the causes of this accident.

They quickly put the blame on the athlete himself, which was rather shocking. First of all, it was insensitive. But, also, they tried to say that it was because he — he wasn’t an accomplished athlete, when, in reality, the best lugers have been crashing also.

Armin Zoeggeler, who is the defending Olympic champion, won a medal here in Vancouver, he had crashed. So, when you start getting the athletes themselves questioning a course, that is when you — you should step in and do something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you have followed the Olympics for a long time, as I said.

Do you see them, especially the Winter Olympics, more thrills, more spills? I mean, is it getting more dangerous?

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: It is almost as if they have added a fourth category to faster, higher, stronger, which is most — more dangerous. And it is true.

And part of this goes back to about 20 years ago, when the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, discovered that they were losing the youth audience for the Winter Olympics. The Summer Olympics wasn’t a problem.

And, so, they sought out snowboarding, a youth sport, and then the short-track speedskating, aerials, moguls, these different more X Game-like sports that appeal to younger people. But what they also have done is, they brought in more of a danger element, and they have also added that danger element to even alpine skiing.

So, yes, I think it is a disturbing trend, actually.

JEFFREY BROWN: A disturbing trend, but did it work? I mean, is this what they think people wanted?

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Yes, it definitely worked. The ratings have been up. So, in that sense, I guess they got what they wanted.

But, sometimes, you get a little something that you didn’t ask for. And, in this case, it was a really tragic something they didn’t ask for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Presumably, though, the technology changes as well, the — the ability to control some of these sports, the equipment, all of that advances at the same time.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Well, it’s true.

But, if you take the luge, sticking to the luge, yes, the technology advances all the time. But it — it advances in a way that, not only makes them go faster, but also gives them more control. And, so, what you had with this problem — the problem we had here in Vancouver was the course itself.

It was a new course. And it was designed by somebody who had designed the last three Olympic courses, who is very knowledgeable. In his early interviews after the tragedy, he said that he had designed the course to go a certain speed, and, in reality, it was going 20 miles an hour faster.

So, the question that, if you are going to have a real investigation, not like the whitewash that we saw the Luge Federation do, you have to ask yourself, is this designer of the course, is what he said the truth? Did something happen between his design and the construction? What is the story here?

When you have even the major athletes worrying about the course, you really should — that should have been a red flag that they had to deal with it before the Olympics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, to the degree that there is this line between the thrill and — and real danger, who is supposed to — how is it supposed to be governed? Who is supposed to be finding that line?

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: The International Olympic Committee is the umbrella organization that runs the Olympics. But, in reality, the competition themselves are run by the international sports federation in charge of each sport.

So, the Ski Federation is in charge of everything about skiing, the Skating Federation skating, and, in this case, the Luge Federation was supposed to make sure that the course was safe and that everything was going well.

Of course, the International Olympic Committee can criticize the sports federations, but, in the end, it is the sports federation that takes responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, when you look at what’s to come here in terms of audiences, in terms of governing bodies, do you expect any change, or does it all fade away over time?

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: I’m a little concerned about what is going to happen in the luge situation, primarily because of the initial way that the Luge Federation dealt with it.

I can see delaying a full investigation until after the Games are over. But when they just quickly came out and said, “OK, we have done an investigation, there is nothing wrong with the course, it was all the athlete’s fault, but, by the way, since you mentioned it, we’re going to change the course,” I think there is something wrong here.

And, at this point, I’m not confident that the International Luge Federation realizes that they have to make some changes, or at least they have to regulate themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is there any way of bringing those concerns to the federation?

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: I would say that, other than public protest and the media calling attention to them, it is the International Olympic Committee who is going to talk to them, I’m sure, in private after the Games are over and go, this was outrageous. You got us into trouble. You need to — we’re going to have to put you under stricter controls if you want to keep your sport in the Olympics.

Keep in mind that luge was added to the Olympics in 1964, and, two weeks before the opening of those Games, a luge athlete was killed on the Olympics course. Now, it was two weeks before the Games. We didn’t have so much television, so it wasn’t a big story.

But, here, you would have thought that they would have learned after 26 years. And here we had it on the opening day.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Wallechinsky in Vancouver, thank you very much.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: And, for the record, we asked the International Luge Federation to respond to Mr. Wallechinsky’s characterization of its investigation, and a spokesman declined to comment.