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Risky Business in Vancouver

They marched in somberly, their flag adorned with a black band of mourning. The Georgian Olympic team drew one of the largest ovations at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Games, tribute to their comrade who had died that morning on the luge run.

The Games would go on, of course. Why not? Nodar Kumaritashvili's death on Friday was the fourth in Winter Olympics history. It will almost certainly not be the last.

"With all due respect," said Georgia's president Mikhail Saakashvili, "and I'm not a competent person to talk about these issues and I don't claim to know all the technical details, but one thing I know for sure - no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death."

With all due respect, Mr. President, where have you been?

The X-Gaming of the Winter Olympics has raised the level of risk to uncomfortable heights. Viewers are apparently no longer satisfied by the thrills to be found in speeding downhill on skis through turns and around gates. We want more dangerous stunts, more "big air," more risk of grievous injury. So we put takeoff ramps in a mogul hill, extend a half-pipe structure so snowboarders can build more momentum for their stunts, construct the most dangerous sliding course the athletes have ever seen. (Oh, and for those staid old fogeys in the Alpine events, we'll spray the snow surface so the downhillers are on virtual ice.)

According to Samantha Shields in The Wall Street Journal, Kumaritashvili told his father he was terrified of one of the turns on the Olympic track before taking his fatal training run. He wasn't the only one: other racers complained to officials that the course was too fast, and many experienced Olympians crashed during their training runs. Last August the Executive Director of USA Luge, Ron Rossi, said, "I do have a concern that people who are a little less experienced have the potential to get seriously hurt."

The disaster factor has no doubt increased the size of the American television audience for the events at the Whistler Sliding Centre, not usually a major draw. The prospect of crashes has always been part of the sell of the Winter Games, but the last ten years have seen a proliferation of sports with the potential for dramatic wipeouts.

"These athletes are not like us," said NBC's Brian Williams on air Saturday as part of an essay on the dangers of the increasingly risky sports. "They take chances we wouldn't consider. They're pursuing the Olympic ideal of ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger.'"

This is a misunderstanding of the Olympic ideal. Citius, Altius, Fortius may be the Olympic motto, but it refers to events that gauge the limits of human performance, not those that test it against artificial construction. We could max out our potential 100-meter time by running straight down the side of a building, increase pressure on gymnasts by putting the balance beam forty feet in the air, push the weight of a shot-put to a hundred pounds. What would it prove about ourselves, any more than we learn from aerials and 540s and "anything goes" snowboard-cross and ski-cross events?

Do we really want people to risk their lives for our entertainment? It's hard to argue that we don't like it. Evel and Robbie Knievel found fame with no talent besides sacrificing their bodies for our amusement; boxers enter the ring knowing one of them may never walk out; auto racing's appeal includes our knowledge of the likely result if we drove at those speeds in such close quarters. Programs like "Deadliest Catch," "Storm Chasers," "Ice Road Truckers," "Black Gold" and their ilk are of interest only because of the risks portrayed. When "The Crocodile Hunter" is killed by a sting ray, is it a tragedy or an inevitability?

Even with a young luger left broken and lifeless by a race course that asked too much, NBC's announcers continued to praise those athletes who "push the edge" and go "right to the margin of out-of-control," and promoted the wild and dangerous thrills we'll see in the days to come.

Who'll be the next to fall, and from how high? Tune in tomorrow. It's must-see TV.

 

Jeff Neuman is a sportswriter and editor, and co-author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf. His columns for RealClearSports appear on Monday and Thursday.

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