Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Heartbroken beyond words'

Games rocked by death of Georgian luge athlete

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VANCOUVER -- Sorry, but this is rather unprecedented.

The Olympics are all about overcoming obstacles, about athletic wonderment and, sometimes, about shattered dreams.

Only rarely is it about sudden death.

Yet here we are, sitting in the cavernous B.C. Place Stadium, awaiting what was supposed to be the Vancouver Games' coming out party -- all the pageantry and flag-waving pride -- in the literal wake of the death of a previously little-known 21-year-old Georgian luger named Nodar Kumaritashvili.

 

No doubt word of the young Georgian's death was spreading like wildfire through the Olympic Village as the athletes prepared to make their way to the ceremonies. For an event reeking of youth and immortality, this kind of sombre news must seem surreal to the competitors.

Where to begin...

"We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here," John Furlong, the chief executive of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, said, during a hastily called press conference Friday afternoon. "I am so sorry to be in this position to be reporting this to you. It is not something I had prepared for or thought I would be prepared for."

And to think the most pressing concern VANOC had been immersed in the past few weeks was the weather and lack of snow in Whistler. Seems pretty insignificant now, in light of Kumaritashvili's passing -- his body being hurtled out of the luge track and into an unpadded steel girder.

But most accounts, Kumaritashvili died right at the base of the finish line. Reports estimated that the young, unseasoned slider was travelling up to 140 kilometres an hour.

"Sorry, it is difficult to remain composed. This is a very sad day," a shaken International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge told reporters in Vancouver. "The IOC is in deep mourning. Here, you have a young athlete who lost his life in pursuing his passion. He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident. I have no words to say what we feel."

Who would? You go off to an Olympic Games to fulfill your wildest dreams... only to die a horrible death on the field?

At the very least, Kumaritashvili's death is a jarring reminder just what enormous risk many of these downhill skiers and sliders -- including Russell's Jon Montgomery -- face as a matter of course. Spectacular spills. Broken bones. Ripped joints. Serious head injuries. This time, the ultimate price was tragically paid in full.

A litany of questions will be asked. Is the track too fast? Was Kumaritashvili, ranked 44th in the world standings, too inexperienced and rash?

Yet the Games will go on, of course. The Opening Ceremonies Friday night was expected to draw a world-wide television audience of three billion. The dome, largely empty now, will be filled to capacity. Winnipeg's Clara Hughes will usher in Canada's 200-plus contingent of athletes. The camera flashes will pop. The moment Vancouverites have waited six trying years for will unfold before the world's eyes.

It's just that such a juxtaposition is hard to comprehend all at once. That's not melodrama, just reality.

For example, flash back to around noon Friday, when your humble agent was chatting with Team Canada women's hockey veteran Jennifer Botterill, who could barely contain her anticipation. She was revelling in the atmosphere of the Olympic Village.

"Amazing, absolutely incredible," gushed the Winnipegger, about to compete in her fourth Games for Canada. "It's beautiful. The views are magnificent."

Botterill was especially looking forward to all the world's Olympians and visitors arriving on Vancouver's majestic doorstep -- rain or no rain.

"That's what we're excited about," she said. "We've talked about that on a number of different levels; how fun, if this is people's impression of Canada. You think about them coming to Vancouver and walking around downtown. This is so great, people coming in from across the world.

"Even the television coverage, people are going to see the ocean and the mountains and the facilities. And all the athletes staying in this absolutely beautiful village every single day. We take pride in that."

Little did both Botterill or the reporter know that, as they were speaking about promise and possibilities of the next three weeks, word was breaking confirming an Olympian's death.

Furlong was right. Organizers in Vancouver were prepared for an untold number of potential problems. The athletes can prepare themselves for every setback or hurdle.

But not this.

Olympians are too young to die.

Much less before the torch has even been lit.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2010 D3

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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