Like many of you, I have been excited for weeks waiting for the start of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games. I've had a love for the games ever since I recorded the Calgary Olympics in 1988 and watched them over and over again (you could not beat the drama of the "Battle of the Brians").
So I shared in the horror and sadness yesterday when I heard that Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year old luger from the Republic of Georgia, was killed during a training run on the luge track. As someone who works in the injury prevention world, I thought- "How could this happen?" "Why wasn't Nodar safe on that track?"
At 7:30pm last night, NBC began their Opening Ceremony coverage with an examination of this accident. As they spoke with athletes and analysts, an interesting trend emerged. Former lugers, such as Duncan Kennedy said that they weren't worried about the top athletes on the track. They don't worry about those ranked one through twelve. They are worried about number thirteen and beyond. Interesting- what types of safeguards are in place (or should be in place) for less experienced lugers?
We heard a consistent message this morning on Yahoo Sports, which reports that after a probe Friday night, "International Luge Federation and Vancouver Olympic officials said their investigation showed that the crash was the result of human error and that “there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.” It sounds like Nodar came late out of the turn and wasn't experienced enough to compensate at those high speeds.
While it seems reasonable to think that accidents happen because of individual behavior (inexperience, incompetence, etc), in public health we take a broader view and look at issues on multiple levels. Could something be deficient in the environment (e.g., the luge track, safety precautions around the walls, available safety equipment for athletes); policies and procedures (e.g., are more inexperienced lugers provided with additional support/practice/safeguards); tracking systems (e.g., are there statistically more accidents/falls on this track versus others throughout the world?).
As you can imagine from a field that trains you to examine the broader context and understand that complex systems usually influence outcomes (not just one level like individual behavior), I will be holding my breath throughout the luge, skeleton, and bobsled competitions....because I don't buy that inexperience was the only cause of this accident.
As I read reports stating that there has been concern about the speed and safety of this track since it opened in 2007 and that training days have been "crash filled" (including crashes among more experienced athletes)- I believe that a complex system of failures led to the numerous crashes (including a Romanian woman being knocked unconscious) and the tragedy for the Georgia team. I'd like to see the "investigation" last more than a few hours the night before an event. I'd like to see the officials examine multiple levels of the system, as I've outlined above. The "top 12" are not the only lugers that qualified for the event...shouldn't the track be safe for all the athletes?