James Lawton: Vancouver’s quick descent from high ground
Kumaritashvili had just 26 practice runs, as opposed to the 200 for the Canadians
Monday 15 February 2010
In the small hours of yesterday morning these 21st Winter Olympics bedevilled by fog on the mountains and what some are saying is a certain moral vacuum at their heart, held their breath for what seemed like a considerable slice of eternity.
The reality was that the second-greatest crisis, after the death of 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili last Friday, was over almost before it began.
However, in the split seconds of potential disaster – one that would surely have squeezed out the last of what at this point might be described as extremely strained joy – the debt owed to the nerve and the experience of 29-year-old Swiss luger Stefan Hoehener was incalculable.
Unlike the fallen young Georgian, for whom a small grotto of remembrance expanded as the drama of the first two luge runs played out in the mist and the snowflakes at the benighted Whistler Sliding Centre, Hoehener had the experience to rescue himself from the worst possibilities of a crash at speed reduced by the decision to shorten the course in the wake of the tragedy – but still heading towards the 90mph mark.
The Swiss was all but detached from his sled as he swept down towards the curve 16 known as 50-50 – because that's your chance of getting through it – where Kumaritashvili died in the horror that was instantly transmitted around the world.
As the crowd gasped – and the heart of the watching Olympic chief Jacques Rogge missed a beat for the second time in 72 hours – Hoehener, a Zurich machinist perfectly built for the dynamics of the ice track at a compact and chunky 5ft 6in, reached out to regain possession of his sled and remove the risk of collision on the final curves. Effectively, he was out of the running for a medal, an unassailable five seconds behind the ferocious pacesetters, Germans Felix Loch and David Moeller and the lurking, two-time defending champion, Italy's Armin Zoeggeler.
But then if Hoehener's presence was merely formal early this morning at the climactic phase of an event which has in some ways come to occupy the core of how these Olympics will be remembered, at least in the vital matter of their priorities, it was a living one which permitted possibilities for the future.
Such horizons were, of course, taken from Kumaritashvili when he flew out of the course and collided with a metal pole and this wrenching fact must for many still dominate all else that happens here. Certainly, it has to dwarf the inconveniences of the weather, postponement of the blue riband downhill skiing and the Canadian disappointment that their best hope to secure the first home gold medal in three Olympics, mogul skier Jennifer Heil, was denied at the last moment by, of all, people an American.
No, the line between legitimate ambition and excessive belief in the right to national bragging rights – and the prosecution of these games according to plan and TV schedule – cannot be so easily buried by a fresh fall of snow.
Certainly, it has been drawn vividly enough in the last 48 hours, when the belief of some here that as the hosts they have overwhelming rights to every advantage, seems hardly to have been touched by charges that the Georgian's death was a direct result of the Canadian policy of hogging practice rights.
There is also the problem that while the investigating British Columbia Coroners Service, the Royal Mounted Police and officials of the International Luge Federation agreed that the cause of the tragedy was not the dangers of the track but the errors and inexperience of its victim, it was still swiftly decided to change utterly the conditions of the competition. This included the building up of the wall, and the changing of the "ice profile" at the fatal curve and moving the start line to the women's mark, nearly 200 yards down the track.
The inconsistency of the ruling screamed at the mourners of the luger who had just 26 practice runs down the course – as opposed to the 200 enjoyed by the Canadians.
Such an imbalance, perhaps predictably, has brought fierce criticism, most notably from the Americans, but there was no hint of any concessions from the home team of three riders, most conspicuously the 14th-placed Jeff Christie.
He could, it seemed, only lament the dissipation of his and his team-mates' advantage built up over two years before the opening of the Games.
He said: "The changes certainly haven't helped us. I've had 200-plus runs from the top. We put a lot of time, money and effort into coming here to slide off the top and they decided to move it down... yes, it's definitely a disadvantage. I have had all those runs from the top and I have the rhythm down. It's mentally tough to be able to switch that rhythm and come down from the ladies' start. It's going to be a grind for the next two races."
Christie's team-mate, Ian Cockerline, in 21st place going into the last two runs, was a little more equivocal, saying: "Luge isn't fair. There's no fair system. There are home tracks for everybody. If we'd given everybody a lot of runs, we would have got in trouble for doing that because there is pressure on us to win medals."
The head of the American luge team, Ron Rossi, has been especially cutting. He says: "The Canadians have to be answerable for their position on training. A track like this demanded the weaker athletes get more time. I'm going to propose some changes, more training for the athletes. It's a terrible tragedy that has happened here but I hope that maybe in the end we can change some rules and never see anything like this ever happen again."
Adding to the force of Rossi's complaints is his belief that a member of his team, Meg Sweeney, could so easily have shared Kumaritashvili's fate. The day before the Georgian died, Sweeney had a near identical crash after "double-looping" the 16th curve. "It was almost the exact same crash," said Rossi, "but she didn't go so high."
Sweeney says she has tried to wipe away the incident but conceded: "There's something missing up here, I'm not going to lie to you."
Her boss says it is a failure to read the gravest warning signs. "They knew they had problems from day one. They had people hitting the wall and going airborne. If you were already concerned about it and you already raised the wall, why didn't you keep going? And why didn't you protect the [metal] posts at the chance that maybe something could happen? I'm not the one to answer but that's the kind of question that needs to be asked."
No doubt it will be asked for some considerable time. In the framing of it there may also be a collision with a point made by the Canadian Cockerline, who did not suppress a troubling thought as, in the heat of the greatest competition of his life, he tried to make sense of something that will always scar the memory of the 21st Winter Olympic Games.
"You know," he reflected, "there's money invested. It's really what it comes down to at the end of the day, I suspect."
There could, you have to believe, be no bleaker epitaph for a fallen Olympian.
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