“What happened in Vancouver, people can term it as a freak accident but I think it taught a lesson to a lot of people in the sport to take a lot more care when it comes to safety issues,” Indian luger Shiva Keshavan in an AP interview before Olympic sledders took to the Sanki Sliding Center for training runs at the Sochi Games. “That’s what they’ve done here.”
“What happened in Vancouver” was the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre prior to the start of competition.
Designed to be the fastest in the world, the Whistler track lived up to its billing in a frighteningly fatal way that forced track designers to rethink their priorities. What evolved from the incident was a track that was ostensibly safer for the athletes of all three sliding disciplines.
While much has been maligned about the pace of construction at many of the Olympic facilities, the Sochi organizers got it right when they scrapped the hedonistic goal of trying to outdo the speed of Whistler and instead worked on a technical challenge. They even took the radical step of adding three uphill sections to the course to dampen some of the speed gains throughout the course.
Little did Keshavan know how much those uphill sections would mean to him when he lined up in the starting blocks to push off on his first training run. The Indian is competing in his fifth Olympics, but his first since the Indian Olympic Committee was suspended by the IOC for political interference in the affairs of the national committee. He seemed more worried about the situation back home than the track he was about to race.
“It is upsetting,” Keshavan said. “Ultimately, for us, the inspiration is to represent our country. That’s what the Olympics are all about. The main thing has been taken away from us, and for quite a shameful reason, a violation of the ethics code – not just a violation, but a refusal to accept the ethics code until we were suspended.”
Taking to the starting gate in a suit adorned with the names of fellow Indians that have helped him over more than a decade of fulfilling his Olympic dream, Keshavan was at his fifth Olympiad but his first as an international citizen without a flag. The track, however, does not care about your nationality, only your skill. He pushed off from the starting gate, got through the first few turns, and navigated the first uphill section coming out of the wide right bend.
Keshavan showed the veteran tact he has developed over 16 years of racing, and learned firsthand how the track is designed to save lives, when he crashed… and managed to get back on his sled to complete the run.
Coming out of that first uphill section, he negotiated the first curve and picked up speed heading into the right-hander. He got too high on the track and flopped off the sled, sliding through the end of the curve on his stomach. His sled caromed off the wall coming out of the turn, flipping back over and bringing Keshavan back safely on his back atop it:
He would manage to finish off the run, nine seconds off the pace of defending Olympic champion Felix Loch of Germany. But the time was the last thing on Keshavan’s mind as he pulled off his helmet and breathed heavily after the scare.
When he crashed, Keshavan was going 55 miles per hour (89 kilometers per hour), the uphill section doing its job admirably in dampening the speed that started building in the top section. In some ways the Indian luger was merely the beneficiary of a fortuitous series of events. But at the same time, he was going more than 25 mph (40 km/h) slower than Kumaritashvili was when he died at Vancouver, keeping him from flying completely off the top part of the curve and allowing him the time to react.
There is never a guarantee of safety in sliding events; there will always be inherent dangers, especially in the luge and skeleton, in hurtling oneself down an icy chute with little more than a skintight suit and a helmet for protection. But track design, as we have learned, has the potential to be fatal… and it also has the potential to save lives.
Shiva Keshavan was always unlikely to compete for a spot on the podium in Sochi. But he showed us that even those athletes who are seconds slower are still incredibly athletic. And at least in part because of the way Sochi’s track was designed, the Indian without a flag will have the opportunity to notch a fifth Olympiad to his name.