Earlier this month, Vancouver's Olympic luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia was killed on a course that was the steepest, fastest and ultimately most dangerous ever built. Olympic organizers, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the luge and bobsled federations declared the death an accident, claiming the athlete "failed to control his sled." However, it is now clear that commercialism drove this tragic incident.
The Vancouver organizing committee decided to move the luge event to Whistler mountain, where the alpine ski events were being held, because they wanted to "make this thing financially sustainable...we want it someplace where people will pay top dollar to go whipping down this thing in both summer and winter," said Tim Gayda of the Vancouver organizing committee. As Bob Storey, the bobsled federation's president said, "that was not an engineering decision, that was a commercial decision."
At an 11% grade, nearly 15-20% steeper than most courses built for the last 25 years of competitions, the Whistler course reached a top speed of 96mph, almost nine miles an hour faster than the top standing speed record set a decade ago. Whistler's 100-yard wide valley (compared with Calgary's 300 yards and Salt Lake City's 500 yards) was extremely narrow, so typical speed-slowing long curves were not present, creating the conditions for breaking through top speeds.
Lugers expressed concerns in test runs in 2008. Luge federation officials reacted to those concerns by saying that future luge runs should not exceed 87 miles an hour; sadly, the decision did not apply to tracks already built, even though the day before Mr. Kumaritashvili's death, a luger hit the top projected speed of 96mph.
Is a course being "financially sustainable" really the best metric of success? What about "total sustainability," which might also measure the value of the luger's life and the lives of future riders on the course. That takes setting standards and holding people accountable.
Unfortunately, officials with the International Olympic Committee referred questions about the track's specifications to the International Luge Federation and the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing; the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) claimed they were too busy running the Olympics to answer these questions. The Luge Federation declined comment and the bobsled federation said it is premature to blame speed for the crash.
If we don't have standards to which people remain accountable, how can we expect anything resembling "sustainability" - financial or otherwise?
We have the same problem when it comes to social, environmental, economic or other sustainability efforts where high performance is critically necessary. We need a performance measurement that is accountable to high standards.
Unfortunately, much of what we call standards in our society are not really standards. Too often we have de facto standards based on a given set of data or metrics or a theory that enough people accept to frame a standard model of thinking. The more people fail to question these "standards", the more immovable they become, and when we run our lives by them, we get poor results.
Much of what we call accountability means fulfilling flawed standards, blind to what the standards are supposed to accomplish in the first place. Not often enough do we ask "what exactly are we trying to achieve here?" and then break down precisely what we need to do to reach that clear, defined goal.
As a social entrepreneur, I work on the URSULA project. URSULA stands for Unified Rating System, Universal Lifecycle Assessment and is a way scoring and rating anything and everything in a way that makes it accountable to a standard that serves all life on earth. The system is designed to serve a comprehensive global sustainability, but it is also well suited to serve any clearly defined mission statement, objective or goal - for example, a safe, exciting and financially viable luge course.
URSULA would approach this goal by opening the discussion to a worldwide community of experts on the sport's safety, equipment, weather conditions and other specialized knowledge, detailing everything required to fulfill the stated goals of "safe, exciting and financially viable course." The system would demand that value considerations be weighted - safety vs. payback for example. Value considerations and an "optimal sustainability" score would be computed based on this community input. If run through such a discipline, chances are that in the planning phase ,the Whistler course score would have raised actionable flags when compared to other options like Grouse Mountain in Northern Vancouver.
It is too late for Mr. Kumaritashvili and his grieving family. It is not too late to learn the lessons of what went wrong at Whistler and design systems that make the world safer, healthier and more viable for all of us.
About us: URSULAproject, a 501(c)3 organization, seeks funding to continue its mission, so is currently duking it out -- free market style -- in the Pepsi Refresh Everything grant contest, and we could use your VOTE.