What a tragic start to the Vancouver Winter Olympics! When I heard the news that 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili, the luge athlete from the Republic of Georgia, crashed and died during a training run on Friday, it certainly did cast a dark cloud on the start of the Vancouver Games. It is a terrible loss for his family, his team mates, the sport and all of Canada, the host of these Games who, like any Olympic venue, work so hard and tirelessly and put their heart and soul into organizing this mega event and hope that all goes smoothly! To be hit with such a tragedy hours before the Opening Ceremony is a devastating blow.
And then to hear that the host country, in order to gain 'home-field advantage,' gives less access for training to the Olympic luge track to athletes from other countries, sounds completely unacceptable, particularly in a sport that is so risky in the first place.
I have covered six Olympics -- four Winter Games and two Summer Games -- as a reporter, talk show host and play-by-play analyst for the network radio rights holders. And as much as I adore the Winter Games from both a reporter and fan's perspective, I've always surmised that athletes who lie on a tiny sled with nothing but a helmet and zip down an icy shoot at 90 plus miles an hour, are absolutely crazy. And I am not singling out lugers. Downhill skiers amaze me as well. Broadcasting in the tower which is located at the bottom of the mountain, looking straight up and seeing firsthand how steep and dangerous the Olympic downhill course looks from my position, drives home the point that these athletes are a different lot. They are fearless. They are thrill seekers. They think differently than most.
The most brutal crash I ever witnessed was that of Austrian downhiller, Hermann Maier. I was doing the play-by-play for CBS Radio Network during the Winter Olympics in Nagano in 1998. Thinking he had just caught an edge on a chunk of ice, Maier flew 30 feet up in the air, did a cartwheel and landed exceedingly hard on his head, tumbling down the mountain until he crashed through the fencing in knee deep powder. He later said if the snow were not soft, he would never have gotten up. The crash looked so brutal that nobody in the broadcast booth who was watching it, live, thought he was alive. But seconds later, Maier got up and walked away! It was one of the most amazing moments I'd ever witnessed. And later that day, he not only showed up for a press conference, he arrived with his sense of humor intact when he joked, "I flew 30 feet in the air, it was a good flight but it was not as good as Lufthansa..." A few days later, after the ski schedule had been pushed back because of heavy snow, not only did he compete, he won two gold medals -- in the Super G and in the Slalom! It was an incredible story that became even more inspiring years later when in 2001, he suffered a life threatening motor cycle accident and after persuading the doctors not to amputate his leg, underwent reconstructive knee surgery instead.
Once he healed and returned to competitive skiing, it took him all of two weeks before he won yet another World Cup event! 54 World Cup titles later, Maier's legend was sealed and he remains one of the most recognizable faces in Austria and in alpine history.
Obviously these skiers, ski jumpers, lugers, etc., ignore fear or they couldn't compete in their respective sports. These athletes must think differently. They obviously realize the inherent dangers in what they do but they can't let their minds think it. They have to be so highly skilled, both physically and mentally, that the element of danger can't be part of their thinking. I consider myself an athlete but even with the proper training and experience, I would never consider racing on a downhill alpine course or on a luge track. So yes, these athletes deserve a lot of credit for being 'risk takers' and having the skills and confidence required to deal with the danger factor and compete in events that thrill themselves and their fans.
But having said that, you would think the governing bodies of each sport would take every necessary precaution required so their athletes avoid injury and death. I would think it would always be best to error on the side of caution. So my first thoughts when I saw the horrible crash of the luger was: why wasn't there padding placed on the medal beams along the track? Why was the track the fastest ever? And why couldn't athletes from other countries have more practice runs?
Hopefully, the organizing bodies and the proper authorities have learned a big lesson. But it is too late for Nodar Kumaritashvili. I'm sure he inspired many people with his own story leading up to his selection on the team and his participation in the Vancouver Games. But we all wish the story had a better 'Hermann Maier-like' ending.
Ann welcomes your comments and responses. Visit Ann's web site at www.annliguori.com to order DVD copies of her cable interviews with legends in sports and entertainment or to order an autographed copy of her book, A Passion for Golf, Celebrity Musings About the Game.