Olympic Luge Death May Have Been Prevented With NASCAR Safety Techniques

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer IFebruary 12, 2010

WHISTLER, BC - FEBRUARY 10: Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia practices during the Men's Single Luge training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics on February 11, 2010 in Whistler, Canada. Kumaritashvili was killed on Feburary 12, 2010 after crashing while making a practice run. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

This weekend is the kickoff of two major sporting events, the Winter Olympics and NASCAR's Daytona 500. Both events involve great speed and the potential for danger and disaster.

Before the Olympic flame was even lit, disaster indeed struck. Georgian Nodar Kumartashvili, age 21, lost his life in a luge training run in at the Whistler track in Vancouver.

The horrifying video of the luger's crash shows him losing control, flying over the wall of the luge track, and hurtling at high speed into a steel girder. News reports indicate that Kumaritashvili was traveling at least 90 miles per hour before being thrown from the track into the metal pole.

Even before the Olympic games came to town, the Vancouver track was fast gaining the reputation of just plain dangerous. "I pray a little in turns 11 and 12 and then breath again after 13," American bobsledder Michelle Rzepka said in a press conference on Thursday. 

Rzepka was referring to the exact part of the track where Kumaritashvili crashed and died.

The Whistler track is the fastest luge run in the world. Many racers hit speeds of over 93 miles per hour, six miles per hour faster than the previous world record.

Even one of the best, Armin Zoeggeler, who is ranked as No. 1 in luge, crashed at the Whistler track. 

So, what does an Olympic tragedy have to do with the Daytona 500? NASCAR's Great American race and the Daytona International Speedway have also seen their share of tragedy.

On the last lap of the Daytona 500 in February 2001, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. crashed and lost his life. Earnhardt, Sr. died instantly of head injuries sustained in the crash.

Just as the head of the International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge had to announce the death of one of their own athletes, NASCAR President Mike Helton had to make this announcement:

"This is undoubtedly one of the toughest announcements I have ever personally had to make," Helton said. "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."

Immediately after the loss of one of the sport's icons at that Daytona 500, NASCAR went to work in earnest, trying to address the safety issues that led to Earnhardt's death. 

The sport instituted many safety changes, including head and neck restraints, as well as safer barriers, the latter of which absorbs the impact of severe crashes.

NASCAR also had to make changes at restrictor plate tracks like Daytona and Talladega, instituting higher catch fences. This safety feature ensures that any crashing cars are kept on the track and any debris is kept away from the fans in the grandstands.

Just as with NASCAR, there is no doubt that the International Olympic Committee will now have to address the safety concerns that have come to light as a result of the luge accident.

The Olympic governing body needs to take a page out of the NASCAR playbook and investigate safety improvements in the Whistler track. Perhaps the Olympic Committee should consider some of the safety features that NASCAR has implemented.

For example, the Olympic Committee may want to consider instituting "safer barriers" around the metal poles that line the luge track. This would absorb the impact of any racer that may hurtle off the track and into one of these barriers.

The Olympic Committee may also want to consider the use of catch fencing, similar to what protects the competitors and fans around NASCAR tracks, particularly where the speeds are high at Daytona and Talladega.

These safety features, catch fencing and some "safer barrier" insulating the metal girders, may just have prevented the death of the young, hopeful Olympian on his training run in Vancouver.

The International Olympic Committee must learn a lesson from NASCAR when it comes to safety. Just as with the NASCAR drivers who are ready to step into their cars on Sunday for the Great American Race, all Olympic athletes deserve to be safe as they compete for the chance of Olympic glory.