Risk at the Winter Olympics

Risk at the Winter Olympics

In successive Olympic Games some of the courses and events are becoming faster, more difficult and therefore more dangerous. The margin of error allowed by a competitor becomes smaller and smaller and big adjustments are required by these elite athletes to accommodate these course changes.

Where should the line be drawn on Olympic event safety?

Olympic Sponsorship and Broadcast Rights

The Olympic Games are spectator sports worth billions of dollars in revenue. In Canada, the cost of buying the broadcast rights for the 2010 Games hit a record-breaking $90 million for Vancouver, up from $28 million in Turin in 2006 and from $12 million for the Lillehammer Games in 1994.

According to an article on the Toronto Star’s website, TheStar.com, Jim Little, chief brand and communications officer of the The Royal Bank of Canada, which paid $110 million for the rights to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics and London 2012 Games, says it’s well worth it. “It’s the biggest marketing platform in the world”.

It is no secret that tragedy, danger and spectacular accidents generate keen media interest.

When it comes to extreme sports such as high altitude mountaineering the accidents and disasters regularly receive more coverage than successes.

In an article titled “Women’s Olympic downhill course takes a bite out of competition”, Jim Morris, reporting for the online edition of the Canadian Press on the 17.02.2010, said of the spectacular crashes in the women’s downhill event in Whistler, “It was ugly but riveting to watch”.

Olympic Luge Tragedy

A few hours before the Olympic Games opening ceremony, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a horrific crash, flying off the luge course at 145 km/h during a training run and colliding with an un-padded steel pole. The international federation that governs luge racing claimed that the track was safe. The accident was deemed to be the fault of the inexperienced competitor who failed to control his sled.

During training runs at the Whistler Sliding Centre where the tragedy took place athletes were attaining unprecedented speeds on the luge track. Designed for speeds of 137 km/h (85 miles/h), the track was delivering speeds above 150 km/h, 9 miles/h faster than the standing 2000 world speed record.

According to an article: “Speed and Commerce Skewed Track’s Design” in the Wall Street Journal online edition, the first choice of Grouse Mountain for the sliding centre was abandoned because Whistler would be a more financially viable location after the Games. As a result, the track designers had to fit the track into a narrower valley, which meant a steeper slope and tighter turns.

While absolving themselves of blame for the accident the luge federation fixed the corner where the accident took place by replacing it with a wall and lowered the start gate of the course to slow the sleds.

Women’s Olympic Downhill Run

In an accident reminiscent of Austrian downhiller Hermann Maier’s hair-raising crash in the 1998 Nagano Games, Swedish alpine star, Anje Paerson was fortunate to escape severe injury after a spectacular crash during the women’s Olympic downhill run on the almost 3 km Franz’s course. Paerson flew 60 metres before crashing into the piste.

Due to warm weather that initially postponed the event, the women only had one warm-up run on the downhill course (instead of the standard two runs). The warm-up run they had was in two sections, squeezed between men’s events. Trying to hold another training would have delayed the women’s downhill. That would have meant rescheduling television times and putting more pressure on a schedule already upset by bad weather.

German competitor Maria Riesch, a downhill veteran and pre-race favourite, declared the course the most difficult that she has ever skied. As reported to the Canadian Press, digital version on the 17.02.2010 Riesch said, “When I was down in the finish I thought I was going to die.” Though a pre-race favourite Reisch finished eighth. “My legs were dead. It was so tiring.”

According to Reuters USA online edition, Canadian competitor Emily Brydon said, “The reason for the carnage is that it’s a long run for the women and you’re exhausted when you reach the bottom, which makes those last jumps really tricky,” she added.

The women’s race director, Atle Skaardal said later that the course, where women were reaching speeds of just under 110 km/h, will be changed for safety reasons. “We will try to ease things down a little bit,” Skaardal said.

Similarly to the reaction to the tragedy in the luge event, a lower start position will be used.

Olympic Athletes Compete on the Edge

In speed events which may well be considered extreme sports, Olympic athletes are often competing on the edge of their ability and the limit of control since the difference between a medal or indeed the top ten placements is often a matter of hundredths of a second. Serious crashes, career -threatening injuries are not surprise occurrences at the Olympics. Elite athletes compete at speeds regularly in excess of 100 km/h when a single mistake can be very costly in terms of their performance and their safety. The winner of the gold medal is often arguably the competitor who reaches the brink of disaster without toppling over the edge.

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