By almost all accounts, the XXI Olympic Winter Games (“XXI Games”) in Vancouver were an incredible success. Eighty-two countries participated in the XXI Games, combining to break the record for most competitors ever at a Winter Games; American speed-skater Apolo Ohno won his eighth Olympic medal, a record for an American athlete at the Winter Games; and Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn and Julie Mancuso led an amazing U.S. ski team to the top of the podium. The XXI Games also were marked not just by the thrill of victory, but by the agony of an athlete’s untimely death in a luge accident at the Whistler Sliding Centre. On February 12, 2010, 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili plunged to his tragic death during a training run on the Whistler course, just hours before the opening ceremony.
The Whistler Sliding Centre is a 16-curve superspeedway that made its competition debut in the February 2009 FIBT World Cup. The Whistler course is not for the faint of heart -- the track reportedly is faster and more difficult than any other in the world. Indeed, during the XXI Games, Curve 13 of the track was coined “50-50” by American bobsledder Steve Holcomb because of the odds of a crash, and the final curve was nicknamed “Thunderbird” because the sound in the air after a competitor finished the track was compared to that of a Thunderbird flapping its huge wings. During the 2008-09 Luge World Cup season finale in February 2009, the track had the fastest registered speed in luge. But the speed of the track has come with a price. The Whistler course had more than 30 reported crashes during the 2010 Olympic competition, including Nodar’s death and the crash of Romania’s Violeta Stramaturaru,in which she was knocked unconscious after slamming into several walls during a training run.
Nodar was reportedly sliding at nearly 90 mph coming out of Curve 15 -- the fastest part of the track – when he lost control of his sled, bounced off a side wall, flew out of the course and slammed into uncovered steel support beams. Nodar was knocked unconscious and air-lifted to Whistler Hospital, where he died of his injuries. The XXI Games would have been Nodar’s Olympic debut.
An initial assessment of the accident came quickly. The initial International Luge Federation report concluded that Nodar’s death was caused by his own errors and not any deficiencies in the course. The Federation’s report declared that “it appears after a routine run, the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16 . . . . This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident.”
Despite its insistence that the Whistler course was safe, Olympic and luge officials moved the start for the men’s competition lower on the track, to the women’s start, to limit speeds. The wall around Curve 16, where Nodar crashed, also was extended to cover the row of steel beams into which he plunged. Svein Romstad, Secretary General for luge’s international governing body, said that the motivations behind the remedial measures reflected a concern for “the emotional component” of athletes.
The Kumaritashvili family has not expressed interest in placing legal blame. David Kumaritashvili, Nodar’s father, stated: “Maybe my son was at fault, but if the beams weren’t there this wouldn’t have happened, he would be alive.” But there are still many spectators watching from the grandstand to see whether the Kumaritashvilis change their minds and decide to file a civil lawsuit.
A wrongful death lawsuit would entail a labyrinth of legal issues. Among other issues, both venue and choice of law could be contested. Although the accident occurred in Canada, documents signed by Nodar relating to his participation in the Games in all likelihood included choice of law and venue provisions.
Given the speed of the track resulting from its design and at least arguable lack of precautions to ensure the safety of athletes, the potential defendants might include any party responsible for the design, construction or maintenance of the track and any party which sanctions athletes’ use of it. Whether the track is unreasonably dangerous would likely be a key issue in the matter, as well as what type of legal duty the various defendants owed to Nodar. Joseph Fendt, the president of the International Luge Federation, was one of many concerned about the track’s safety. After seeing record speeds and a number of spills by skilled riders, he stated that the course worried him. Also at issue would be whether the waiver that Olympic athletes sign to participate in the Games and/or their assumption of the risks involved in participating in inherently dangerous sports would absolve any defendant of liability.
Although an action has yet to be filed, and may never be, the untimely death of Nodar Kumaritashvili is likely to, and hopefully will, have a continuing impact on efforts to enhance safety on the ice and at future Winter Games.