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A death soon brushed aside

BILL PLASCHKE

One day after a luger dies in training accident, it's pretty much business as usual at the Olympics.

February 14, 2010|Bill Plaschke

From Whistler, Canada — One day later, a woman in dungarees and a shrug had returned to shoveling ice at Turn 16.

"Yesterday that ice was red," a bystander said.

One day later, the national flags above Turn 16 still flapped at full staff, the Olympic rings there still glowed a sweet blue, there was no makeshift memorial of flowers or cards, there was no visible memory.

Check that. In the far reaches of the Whistler Sliding Centre, there were two reminders that only 24 hours earlier, an Olympian died there.

There was a new wall above Turn 16 that looked as if it had been assembled in fifth-period wood shop. There was flimsy foam padding wrapped around nearby steel girders that had apparently been taken from a high school blocking sled.

Move along. Move along. Nothing to see here.

A day after Georgian slider Nodar Kumaritashvili died after being thrown from his luge on that Turn 16, the Olympics had already barreled down the slope of remorse and landed in the tangled netting of acceptance.

The track stays open. The competition continues. The reaction from the luge community is epitomized by the response from American Tony Benshoof, who was asked Saturday about the eeriness in being the first person down the track since Kumaritashvili's death.

"Whatever," he said.

They care. They don't care. They can't afford to care.

Olympic officials expressed great sorrow and crocodile tears over the loss, but after a lengthy investigation -- lasted, oh, about 10 minutes -- they decided to blame it on the kid.

"The athlete came late out of Curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make a correct entrance into Curve 16," said an official statement released late Friday. "There was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."

If there were no deficiencies in the track, then why did Olympic officials shorten it and slow it after the death, moving the men's starting line down to the women's starting line, and the women's line down to the junior starting line?

Either it was the track's fault or it wasn't. And if it was the track's fault, shouldn't it have been shut down for a few days to conduct a real investigation?

Around noon Saturday, under a lazy mist and spitting rain, I stood alone within a few feet of the accident site. I could have leaned over and touched the spot where Kumaritashvili left the track.

There was no yellow tape, no cops, not even a security guard, the only flashes coming from the bright suits of the racers as they sped past during women's training runs. Investigation, huh? Led by Dudley Do-Right?

Move along. Move along. Nothing to see here.

One day later, competitors, even the ones who bitterly complained about the safety of the track before the tragedy, had also put it out of their helmets. Self-preservation before sympathy.

"I haven't seen the video, I don't want to see it, I can't see it," said Megan Sweeney, a U.S. luger. "I've pushed it out of my mind. I can't do that to myself."

Hannah Campbell-Pegg, an Australian luger who had actually accused Olympic officials of putting at risk the lugers' lives, struggled with this, asking for a two-minute delay before staring her training run.

"I told them, 'I'm not ready to go yet,' " she recalled. "I said, 'I'm not in my right mind yet.' "

Campbell-Pegg couldn't lie about her feelings, but most here do, moving forward because there is nothing in the Olympic motto about going the other direction.

"Luge is a tough sport," Benshoof told reporters. "At the end of the day, we're going 90 mph six inches from the ice."

A tough sport for tough folks who apparently have neither the time nor patience to bleed for anyone but themselves.

"If anything, I've been hearing the top guys complaining because the lower starts have slowed the course down," said Roger White, an Australian former Olympic luger. "Everybody wants to walk away from here saying that they conquered the big Olympic mountain, and now they can't do that."

Oh yeah, the altered starts. Just in case you want to compare this move to allowing the men to hit from the women's tees, understand that the times on the new abbreviated course would still set Olympic records. Forcing the sleds to slow from 95 mph to 89 mph isn't exactly fitting them with training wheels.

The course is still dangerous. A man still died here. There are still questions about the track's relation to that death.

Those are questions obviously for another day, another sport, another Olympics.

"Something is missing in my brain, I'm not gonna lie," Sweeney said with an odd laugh.

Move along. Move along. Nothing to see here.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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