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Luge dangers exaggerated

By David Epstein, Special to CNN
  • David Epstein says Georgian luger's death at Whistler track was a freak accident
  • Epstein: Whistler track has crash statistics that are in line with other tracks around the world
  • Study of dangerous Lake Placid track found sport "quite safe," similar to skiing, he writes
  • That said, Epstein says, modifications in Whistler prudent; reducing speed wouldn't hurt

Editor's note: David Epstein is a writer for Sports Illustrated who is covering the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He has been recognized for outstanding science journalism.

Vancouver, British Columbia (CNN) -- Luge is a dangerous sport in which accidents happen. That was the refrain from athlete after athlete when asked how they felt about the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed when he flew off the Olympic track during training in Whistler on Friday.

But luge athletes will be the first to tell you they are more driving technicians than adrenaline junkies, and when pressed about why they would participate in a sport that's so dangerous, several concede they don't consider the sport to be that risky.

Amidst the shock at the death of a young athlete, the fact has been lost that in the hands -- and feet -- of masters, luge is relatively safe.

A 1997 paper in the American Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed luge injuries between 1985 and '92 on the Lake Placid, New York, luge course, a track that sliders consider to be technically trickier, though slower, than Whistler.

The conclusion was that luge on that difficult track is remarkably safe. With "injury rates comparable with recreational skiing," the study says, "the sport of luge is quite safe... despite the appearance of danger."

The study analyzed 57,244 runs by competitive, or training to be competitive, men and women from 12- to 35-years-old. It recorded 407 injuries. The vast majority of those were bruises, scrapes and muscle strains. Luge is rough on the back and neck muscles.

During the seven years, a mere 10 injuries were serious enough, like a broken bone, to force the athlete to miss a week or more of practice. According to the study, athletes were more likely to get hurt away from the track while carrying their sleds than to suffer a major injury on it.

The grand total of concussions recorded was 10. A six-year study of the National Football League found, conservatively, that a concussion happened about every other game.

Because 16 games are played on the opening NFL weekend, concussions during pro football should surpass seven years of Lake Placid luge in Week 2 of the season.

And never mind boxing, where athletes are occasionally killed, and the actual goal is to physically insult the brain of a competitor until he or she is unable to stand.

It's a discrepancy that Canadian luge coach Wolfgang Staudinger, who was angered that the men's race was moved to the lower women's start after Kumaritashvili's death, was quick to address.

The speed of race cars is not reduced every time a professional driver crashes and dies, he said. For that matter, nor are speed limits on roads, where 37,261 people in the United States died in crashes in 2008.

That said, nothing would be wrong with reducing speeds at the Whistler course; the sport is just as exciting for fans at 80 mph as at 90 mph.

As for the Lake Placid luge analysis, study author Dr. Robert Cummings, an orthopedic surgeon in Concord, New Hampshire, said different tracks have different hazards. (Cummings was a competitive luger himself, and said he never suffered a serious injury.)

Much was made of the Whistler track being the world's fastest after a German slider topped 95 mph on it last year. Kumaritashvili was going 88 mph when he crashed.

And yet, in the three years of its existence, the Whistler track's crash stats are in line with other tracks around the world, according to officials from the International Luge Federation. Out of more than 30,000 runs in the three sliding sports -- bobsled, luge and skeleton -- Whistler has seen 340 crashes.

Lugers and coaches at the Olympics said that they've never seen an athlete fly off the course entirely, as Kumaritashvili did.

"Everything came together at the same time," said Tony Benshoof, a U.S. luger who finished eighth on Sunday, "but there are places on every track where that could feasibly happen."

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But it essentially doesn't happen. This was a terrible, terrible, freak accident. U.S. luge coach Wolfgang Schaedler says he hasn't seen an athlete fly off a course in his 35 years in the sport. That isn't to say that the modifications in Whistler -- the ice on curve 16 was shaved to make it harder for sleds to go up the wall, a new retaining wall was put in place and a lower start is being used -- are not perfectly prudent.

Perhaps retaining walls should be put along every curve at every track in the world. Even the athletes who were upset at the change of their starting spots said the luge federation had to show the world how serious it is about safety.

What happened to Kumaritashvili was a tragedy so deeply affecting that athletes who should have been basking in the realization of their Olympic dreams were frequently choking back tears.

Still, they agreed that the rush to see every luge run as a gambler's game of life and death is a characterization that can only be made by those who started following the sport on that tragic Friday.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Epstein.

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