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Questions that must be asked after tragic death

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James Pearce | 00:36 UK time, Sunday, 14 February 2010

When you arrive in a city to cover an Olympics you always know that at some stage during the Games something totally unexpected is going to happen that will make headlines around the world.

Often that story can be an uplifting one, but tragically on Friday it was quite the reverse. Vancouver had spent seven years getting ready to host the world's best winter athletes, yet just hours before the Opening Ceremony one of them died.

As John Furlong, the chief executive of the Games said, "It's not something I prepared for, or ever thought I would have to be prepared for."

Of course nobody could have predicted the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili at the luge track, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't have been avoided.

The Vancouver organisers put out a statement that same evening implying it was the Georgian's fault, claiming that he "came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16".Nodar Kumaritashvili
Nodar Kumaritashvili had taken part in five World Cup races this season. Photograph: Getty

The conclusion was that the track was safe and that the competition could continue.

In many ways, though, the most pertinent comment has come from the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is in Vancouver. He argued that no human error should lead to the death of an athlete.

That's a sentiment with which many will agree. Yes, of course some winter sports are dangerous, but does that mean that athletes should have to risk their lives to fulfil their dreams of competing at an Olympics?

There's been much talk in Vancouver about the Canadians' campaign to 'Own the Podium'. That has been the name of their attempt to do everything in their power (legally it must be said) to win their first ever Olympic gold medal on home soil.

They've limited the amount of practice time for foreign athletes at many of the venues. It seems harsh, though, to blame that policy for what happened at the luge track. The Georgian had had 26 previous runs on it.

The difficulty for those organising an Olympics is this: They're determined to build facilities that test the best in the world, yet at the same time they need to be aware that the IOC doesn't want the Games to be elitist, so there can be a large variable in standard between the best and worst in any event.

If that balance goes wrong then a track that is testing for the very best in the world could end up being dangerous for others.

I put that point to the IOC President Jacques Rogge at his press conference after the accident on Friday. I asked him if he believed that a track at an Olympics should actually be easier than those at other major events, so that less experienced athletes could compete.

Rogge batted my question away, saying that it was too early to discuss such things, and he was probably right to do so. It's an issue, though, that will have to be debated once these Games are over.

Nodar Kumaritashvili was no novice. He had taken part in five World Cup races this season. He was, though, still far less experienced than many of his fellow competitors.

It's a sad fact of life that accidents happen, but if this man's death is not to be in vain, then the IOC must determine if it could have been avoided.


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