Faster, higher… deader

ANOTHER professional skier died this month, and little is being done to make the sport safer. Author, journalist and Olympian LAURA ROBINSON* comments on sports officials’ tendencies to put the fight for new viewers by making the sports more dangerous and exciting above the safety of the athletes.

Photo: RenoTahoe:Flickr

“I think they are pushing it a little too much. To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”

Hanna Campbell-Pegg,
Australian Luge Team, Vancouver 2010 Olympics just before Georgian luger Nodor Kumaritashvili died on the same course

CANADA and the international skiing community have lost another skier as national skier cross team member Nik Zoricic died from head injuries after veering off course on a jump before the finish in a World Cup race in Grindelwald, Switzerland on 10 March. Many call it a freak accident on a safe course while others ask exactly what we are doing to athletes when we ask them to “perform” in a spectacle of speed and danger where they take all risk and reap few benefits.

Todd Brooker, of Crazy Canuck fame, leads the critical discussion. “In my view, that jump was way too big to have that close to the finish line. And it posed one of the biggest challenges but also the biggest risks on that course. To me, it just wasn’t right.”

Why would a jump be in an area that may be more dangerous than another part of the course where athletes would have more time for recovery? It boils down to what has happened to Olympic sport over the past decade as the IOC realized market growth is not with patient traditional fans who watch long-track speed-skating or biathlon outside in freezing temperatures, but in the ADD audience of young males  who have an insatiable appetite for action videos incorporating danger and violence. With Coca-cola and McDonald’s as two of the IOC’s biggest “partners” through their sponsorship program TOP’s — The Olympic Partners, the marketing of sports, and thus sport itself is being reduced to lowest common denominator. Young males consume Coke, junk food and danger. It is for this same reason that outside of the Olympics, “extreme” sports are sponsored by so-called energy drinks loaded with sugar and caffeine.

Skier cross became an Olympic sport at the Vancouver 2010 Games after the IOC Programme Commission recommended its addition over women’s ski jumping, even though more women ski jumped in more countries and have an over one hundred-year-long history that skier cross does not have. But women’s ski jumping would not bring young eyeballs to TV’s according to IOC’s Programme Commission chair Franco Carraro, who recommends what sports should be added. After the 2002 Salt Lake City Games where snowboarding was a TV hit, Carraro recommended adding snowboard cross to the 2006 Turino Games because of its appeal to “the fifteen to twenty-five year old” market therefore bringing “additional value to the Olympic Programme.” Snowboarding replaced Alpine skiing as the most-watched TV sport after figure skating. Thus skier cross became a shoe-in for Vancouver, despite its small participation rate.

It is important to note that these recommendations came from a man who, at the same time, was forced to resign as president of the Italian football federation after being involved in a game-fixing ring. The IOC’s ethics commission would not comment on the situation in Italy. He remains chair of the Programme Commission and an IOC member while the Italian teams involved, Juventus, Lazio and Forentina were demoted – a perfect example of how athletes pay a risky public price while sport officials stay spanking clean.

Zoricic is hardly in the same category as athletes who, under pressure from powerful men, fix games, but there is another pressure athletes face and that is to compete in situations where their safety may be compromised in order to make their sport more ‘TV friendly.’ 

Zoricic is hardly in the same category as athletes who, under pressure from powerful men, fix games, but there is another pressure athletes face and that is to compete in situations where their safety may be compromised in order to make their sport more “TV friendly.” To ask questions about one’s safety is equivalent to being a wuss, especially in sports that know if they don’t become faster and more dangerous, they may risk being cut from the Olympic program. So courses are made faster, but the “experts” who tell athletes and the public everything’s safe are those who are most invested in the growth of the sport – the officials and staff who are chosen from small often incestuous circles. They don’t call it the “Olympic Family” for nothing.

Meanwhile, there have been several serious collisions and tragic circumstances that called for independent investigations – investigations that never occurred. French skier cross athlete Florent Astier crashed into a fellow skier on a course in Lake Placid in January 2010 as he prepared for the Vancouver Olympics. He remains paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Following on this was the tragic death of Georgian luger Nodor Kumaritashvili on the opening day of the Olympics. It was “investigated” by all the sport organizations that should have prevented it. The organizing committee (VANOC) chair John Furlong wrung his hands and told us the death was “not something I have prepared for or ever thought I needed to prepare for.”

One year later CBC TV’s The Fifth Estate revealed Furlong knew the International Luge Federation was worried about the safety of the track. In a February 2009 e-mail to select VANOC staff he wrote, “[E]mbedded in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt. An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing.” Furlong gave no recommendation they had an obligation to protect athletes; the opposite was revealed after he advised they get their “legal guys” to look at the luge federation’s letter because they were warned and did nothing.

Athletes are permanently injured and even die, but those who are responsible for their safety remain unscathed. Just check out the Health and Safety Ontario website where they advertise Furlong as the keynote speaker at their May conference. His topic — values based leadership.

This comment piece first appeared in The Toronto Star.

*Laura Robinson is a journalist and the author of Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality. She is a former member of the national cycling team and former Canadian rowing champion. She coaches mountain biking, Nordic skiing and track at Cape Croker First Nation Elementary School, Chippewa of Nawash First Nation, Ontario.

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