Friday, February 12, 2010
Nodar Kumaritashvili, an Olympic luger from the country of Georgia, died today after crashing during a training run in Vancouver. He was 21. He is the fourth athlete and only the second luger to die at a Winter Olympics. The most recent death prior to his was in 1992 when a skiier crashed into snow grooming equipment.
If you've ever watched the luge on television, it has probably crossed your mind that there is something fairly crazy about it. Lugers hurtle down an ice-covered track at speeds up to 90 miles per hour, on their backs. The track twists and turns and they have to steer, although they cannot see where they are going. This is a trade-off, in some sense, with the skeleton, in which the athletes are on their stomach and can see where they are going, but are going head first, which may or may not seem even more insane to you.
Crazy or not, there are hundreds of athletes preparing to race in the luge in Vancouver. The men's luge is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. If that schedule holds, it means that athletes will be sliding down the same course where Kumaritashvili died, doing exactly what he was doing when he died, just about a day after the accident. That's awfully soon.
The effort to come to grips with this tragedy is already evident among lugers from other countries and in the press coverage of this incident. The two main themes of this seem to be a) that the track itself is unusually dangerous and that b) Kumaritashvili was not one of the best lugers. Choosing one or both of these themes as they process his death will have a big impact on what competing again means to these athletes.
If the track itself was unsafe, then lugers are blaming the officials in Vancouver. There have been previous warnings and complaints, but nothing was done, and now a man is dead. This is a relatively easy way to lay blame for Kumaritashvili's death, but it brings with it some problems. First of all, blame is never a particularly useful tool in processing a trauma. Assigning blame does not actually change the fact that someone is dead, and when that truth settles in all the work of dealing with that still has to happen. Secondly, if the track is to blame, that implies that these athletes are themselves in danger.
On the other hand, if Kumaritashvili made a mistake, then lugers can tell themselves that they are better than that. That makes it easier for them to get on the track tomorrow. But if they knew and liked Kumaritashvili, it's pretty painful to blame him for his own death. As much as blame isn't very useful, blaming the dead person is even less so, because you have no hope that that blame will result in a change. The officials might fix the track. Kumaritashvili can't un-crash his sled.
It's not unusual, after something horrible has happened, for people to want to avoid the place where it occurred, at least for a while. For a few days or weeks, people take alternate routes in their cars after an accident or cross the street to be away from a house where a murder occurred. I usually tell people that as long as they are still willing to go out, that fear is typical and will diminish. Unfortunately, in this instance, the equivalent of taking an alternate route would be not competing in the Olympics, and that is also the equivalent of not going out. I don't know how many, if any, athletes will make that choice. But I do know that most, if not all of them, will feel at least a little distracted going down that track tomorrow.
Meet the Quarterback
- Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
- is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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