When Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training run this morning, it came after years of hype of the fastest, most dangerous downhill run in the world. No one wants death, but we all want the athletes to risk it.
Whistler's run is unique. The tightest turns are at the bottom, where sleds are going their fastest. Bobsleigh champ Steve Holcomb described it as being "designed backwards." It's a track meant to be exciting, to test the very best in the world. It's lived up to that from the moment it opened.
Construction was completed on the Whistler Sliding Centre in late 2007, and testers recognized the danger straightaway.
Pierre Lueders, four-time Olympian, and the most decorated slider in Canadian history, noted: "It's definitely the fastest track in the world and that's what makes it so difficult." Canadian skeleton racer Michelle Kelly agreed, stating, "It's an exciting track and what's hard about it is that it has crazy speed, but any loss of concentration and you can get in trouble because it is technical as well."
Hosting the World Cup in 2008, three riders were sent to the hospital. Athletes were shocked at the speed, and the location and placement of turns.
American luger Tony Benshoof told NBC: "When I first got on this track, I thought that somebody was going to kill themselves."
"There is a human limit," says Canadian luge coach and former German doubles medalist Wolfgang Staudinger. "I hope we don't increase the speed of our tracks. Whistler is on the limit."
At the time, these quotes were great press for the sport. Bobsleigh and luge thrive on speed, and the illusion of danger. But it's been much more than an illusion.
There have been crashes daily in training this week. Just yesterday (Thursday), a Romanian luger was knocked unconcious after "slamming into several walls."
Even Nodar Kumaritashvili crashed and was shaken up in practice yesterday. The photos are chilling in hindsight.
And don't say we haven't been warned. An Australian luger spoke, clear as day, of her worst fear.
I think they are pushing it a little too much," [Hannah] Campbell-Pegg said. "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."
Well, the luger's worst fear came to pass today. We don't know yet what reservations Kumaritashvili might have expressed about the track. We only know he's a few months past his 21st birthday and didn't have a choice in the matter if he wanted to compete in his first Olympic Games.
The Winter Olympic version of NASCAR relies on pushing the envelope. How close can we get these people to the edge? Luge and skeleton, and to a lesser extent bobsleigh, will now go through the same existential crisis as NASCAR after every driver's death.
But restrictor plates aren't the answer. It's not the vehicles that are the wild card. It's one specific track, the Whistler Sliding Centre, that we've been warned about for years. Now it claims a life, hours before the Games' opening ceremonies.
(story of Romanian luger)