In the wake of the gruesome death of Olympic luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training accident last week, Olympic officials have moved the starting points on the luge track to slow the course — which has some lugers already missing the excitement of a world-class run.
It may seem the officials have suddenly become more concerned with broken bones than broken records. But the safety of competitive sports has been on the agenda even before Kumaritashvili went over the wall in Vancouver — and some officials want to change the sports themselves to make them less harmful.
“Can Olympic skiing be made safer?” asks Ski magazine’s Kelley McMillan. As skiers have gotten faster, she reports, injuries have mounted, and the International Ski Federation is actively working to reduce them. Along their planned innovations: smaller ski jumps.
Rachel Blount of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reviews a series of horrible recent sports injuries and decides that we — presumably all of us who watch as well as officials — have “allowed the price of an Olympic medal to rise to an unacceptable level.” She thinks it’s time for an “honest discussion of how to make sports safer for every athlete.”
Even here in the land of the Big Hit, politicians are demanding something be done about the growing incidence of head injuries in football.
But it’s a safe bet that, whatever happens in international competition, in the United States officials are more likely to pad up the athletes than to soften up the sports.
U.S. baseball players were recently introduced to a larger, allegedly safer S100 batting helmet that MLB now requires in the minors. Some players scoff, probably because there hasn’t been a disaster like the Tony Conigliaro beaning that convinced more players to wear the earflap-model helmet in the 60s. But there will be, and then they’ll wear the S100.
What they won’t do is anything like what the Wall Street Journal suggested last November. Rather than making football helmets better to shield players from shots to the head, the authors suggested, the NFL might consider getting rid of football helmets altogether, on the reasoning that athletes might, out of self-preservation instinct, play safer if they were more likely to die, or brain-die, on the field.
It’s no shock that the Journal‘s challenge never caught fire. Pro athletes are hypercompetitive, with their colleagues and with historical precedent. And sports fans seems to enjoy the increasing speed and harder hits of modern-age sports. Rather than accept any modification of their games that diminishes their intensity, they’ll go for modification of the gear to insulate the players. Maybe in ten years football players will resemble something out of a Model Mugging class.
Kumaritashvili’s death has put some fear into people, and where Europeans have any say this may lead to permanent changes in some events. But not around these parts.