James Lawton: Rogge must move beyond sorrow into the business of hard decision
Saturday 13 February 2010
The death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili will be many things to many people, from the tragic loss of a brave young athlete to an inevitable misadventure in a sport too fast and too dangerous.
But all that is emotion and opinion and there was one imperative last night when the XXI Winter Olympics opened here with pageantry and celebration that had suddenly become as empty as the snaking track of ice that a few hours earlier had claimed Kumaritashvili's life.
It belonged to the International Olympic Committee and it centred on the feasibility – and maybe even the morality – of keeping open the Whistler Sliding Center under the weight of a growing conviction that it had become not so much a test of nerve and skill as a lottery played with the lives of the athletes who operate on a terrible edge of danger.
The consensus in the wake of the tragedy was that the luge, bobsleigh and skeleton teams with the possible exception of the traumatised Georgians would all elect to carry on despite the risks to all but the most accomplished and best prepared participants in a branch of sport which by its very nature will never be less than a daunting test of nerve.
International Olympic President Jacques Rogge inevitably deflected the first wave of questions about the safety of the track and reports of growing concern after a series of accidents in training. He said that it was a time of sorrow and that answers to certain questions would come in due time.
But if the Rogge response came in solemn tones the overriding reaction had to be that it was platitudinous.
A lot of sorrow was expressed by the Olympic hierarchy 38 years ago in the wake of the slaughter of Israeli athletes and coaches by the terrorists of Black September at the Munich summer games but the president of the IOC, the American plutocrat Avery Brundage insisted that the games must proceed at all cost.
Here in Vancouver the issue is much more localised – and in one way much more challenging in that the IOC must now decide, in the face of some troubling evidence, whether they can allow the possibility of further tragedy in those sports which provide such a flood-tide of adrenalin and spectacle.
Rogge announced that a full investigation would be conducted but with the first round of the men's luge starting later today the decision-making has to be performed against the most demanding clock ever faced by the supervisors of such an inherently dangerous sport.
The worry is always the same when such crises comes to the Olympics. What really is the priority, the clean, hard priority of reaching a correct decision or the sense that a vast, gaudy and immensely profitable show goes on?
In this case the pressure for some halting in the freewheeling Olympic juggernaut has perhaps never been so sharply intense with the timing of the tragedy.
With the television schedules set in near stone, there is always the sense that, come what may, the audience has to be appeased. This however is not so easily argued when the image of a young man's death has just been flashed around the world – when the idea of hoopla and laser beams and national triumphalism suddenly seems quite so hollow.
That image is shattering for all who have seen it – and underlining the horror is the belief that for all his courage Kumaritashvili was showing, to practised eyes, distinct signs of apprehension when he made his fatal second practice descent.
One growing complaint is that practice time was in fact at far too much of a premium, a charge weighted ominously by suggestions that the Canadians – whose bullish cry, "we own the podium" – were demanding too much of their status as the hosts.
It means that the IOC has to resolve the haunting question of responsibility for what might follow in the next few days. It is one which is particularly acute here where so many young athletes, out of their passion and their ambition and their maybe less-developed sense of their own mortality, tend to scorn, if not laugh at the concerns of those whose duty is to think of their safety.
There are no smiles in Vancouver now. Only a jarring loss of any sense that this was a time to celebrate courage and skill of all those who are prepared to go to the very edge of their experience in order to deliver something so tangible in their minds as a piece of gold.
Of course that celebration will surface in optimum circumstances, hopefully in the next few days when a proper balance between the inevitable and unacceptable risks may have been achieved.
In the meantime, the Vancouver party has become as subdued as a wake.
In schools and offices the news seeped rapidly into the sense that this was one of the great days in the life of a beautiful city. Of course, such tragedy is an always foreseeable companion for the taking of high risk.
But here there is a worry too. It is that at the Whistler Sliding Center certain vital requirements may not have met thoroughly enough. The pictures of the crash are too graphic, the terrible dangers facing Kumaritashvili when he flew from his impossibly slight vehicle and collided with an unpadded metal pole too shockingly evident, for anything other than that grim conclusion.
When you add to that the growing reports of erratic performance, and a string of accidents that might have brought the same dreadful consequences, there is indeed a compelling need for Rogge and his colleagues to move beyond sorrow and into the business of hard decision.
Already the glory of the XXI Winter Olympics will be scarred permanently by the loss of Nodar Kumaritashvili. But, yes the Games will go, even in some truncated form. That is the way of the Olympics, which long ago became in many ways a circus of quite monstrous proportions. What cannot happen, though, is any sense that the investigation of the meaning of one young man's death was too sketchily addressed.
That would be the most terrible betrayal. Nothing would justify that – and certainly not any belief that the Olympics are more important than the protection of a single life.
Terry affair so simple seen from a distance
Mystification here over the handling of the John Terry affair back in the old country only intensified with the claims of Sepp Blatter that it was entirely the product of a combination of Anglo-Saxon prurience and hypocrisy.
The resulting need to explain some of the realities of the sorry business is, frankly, getting a little wearisome.
"Hell," said one interrogator, who happened to be one of the city's leading lawyers, "that kind of thing happens in every walk of life. There would be mayhem in a lot of law offices in this town if anyone who dallied with another man's wife or girlfriend was fired."
Yes, of course, you say, but what about a more detailed case study of Terry's conduct while holding the office of captain of his national team? You mention the failed "super-injunction", the pay-offs in an attempt to keep control of his life and public image, the auction of those privileges bestowed by the captaincy, the stream of distraction to coach Fabio Capello's insistence on a fiercely motivated and highly disciplined unit.
"Over here," says the lawyer, "we were just told it was about a guy having a love affair with a team-mate's girlfriend."
"So," you say, "were a lot of people back home." And that, of course, was a big part of the problem.
Highly paid pros leave charity to pass the begging bowl
Jerome Bettis, the great running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has explained what can happen to the mentality of sports stars who are granted financial security for life with their first professional contract.
He was commenting on an increasing reluctance of the big NFL names to take part in the annual Pro Bowl, a celebration of the league's best players and the source of a regular contribution to charity.
Joe Montana, who was rather egregiously historically downgraded last Super Bowl weekend when Peyton Manning (10 Pro Bowls) somewhat failed to justify the claim that he was the best quarterback of all time, appeared in the show game eight times. It was something a leading pro did, a duty cheerfully accepted by a man at the top of his business.
Now Bettis says: "You have to offer them more money to play. If a player makes 50 grand, 100 grand for appearing, that's different. But 25 grand? You can pass on that."
Cue the reaction: Say it ain't so, Joe.
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