February 12, 2010

Luge Tracks: Unsafe at Any Speed?

By now, most Olympics followers and news consumers are aware of today's deadly luge accident in Whistler, Canada involving Georgian competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili. NBC has been showing the crash over and over in slow motion. Much has been mentioned of how fast the Whistler luge track is. This misses the point. What I find most shocking is the row of columns, apparently made of steel, that Nodar crashed into. These columns appear to be just 2 feet away from the open embankment of the track. I can't believe this hasn't been identified as an obvious safety hazard.

Many sports have had to improve safety over time. While a full summary would take too long, one analogy comes to mind. The sport of auto racing was notorious in its early years for posing deadly hazards not just to the drivers, but to spectators in the stands. There have been some horrific crashes, especially the 1955 LeMans crash, in which the cars crashed into or over the wall, disintegrated, and sent shrapnel (described as "flying guillotines") into the stands at high speed. So, over time, this hazard was ameliorated by installing safety fences along the walls. Ditto for the glass above the boards at hockey games, the netting along downhill ski runs which you'll see in this and previous Olympics, improved helmets for football players, etc.

That's why I was so shocked at the proximity of those columns on the Whistler luge track. Surely the technology exists to put up some kind of safety netting above the embankments on those tracks. As often happens, someone will probably propose and require this now that such a tragic accident has occurred.

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