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Olympic spirit fails a test

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
  • Bob Greene: Olympic committee blamed luger for the accident that caused his death
  • Greene: Statement was inconsistent with actions taken to make the course safer
  • He says the athletes of the world should have united against that statement
  • Greene says a united stand would have forced authorities to retract the hasty remarks

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

(CNN) -- It would have been one of the most memorable moments in the history of the Olympic Games.

It wasn't to be -- it's probably unrealistic to think that it could have happened.

But what a message it would have sent.

Think what the response of the world would have been if, in the wake of that repugnant official statement blaming 21-year-old luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili for his own death during a practice run, all of the more than 2,500 athletes from 82 countries at the Winter Games had stood together and announced, in polite and respectful tones:

We will not compete in these Olympics until the organizing committee issues a public apology for what they have done to the memory of our fellow athlete. None of us, in any sport, will show up at the venues. You will apologize for what you said about Nodar; you will tell his family you are sorry that you blamed him for dying. Once you have done that, the games can go on. Until you have done it, the television cameras can show pictures of empty ice rinks, empty ski courses, empty luge facilities. You may own the Olympics, but we are the Olympians.

The blame-placing statement, issued by the Olympic organizing committee and the luge international governing body, said that Kumaritashvili's death could not be ascribed to anything that was wrong with the much-criticized luge course.

The fault was his, the statement said -- he did not do a good enough job maneuvering the course. They didn't even wait for a single day to pass before announcing their conclusion. Kumaritashvili, of course, could not respond to what they were saying about him, because he was dead.

What do you think would have happened if all of the Olympic athletes had joined together as one, and in a steadfast and dignified manner stood up to the officials for their monumental insensitivity?

I believe the executives who run the Olympics would have caved within four hours. I believe, faced with the prospect of no athletes, realizing the impact of television broadcasts that showed no games, they would have hurried to issue an abject apology. It would have been a stirring moment in Olympic history: the athletes reminding the bureaucrats of who is really essential.

There is, in practicality, no way such a moment could have happened; the blame-assigning statement was issued so quickly, and the games began so soon after, that even if the athletes had been of a mind to express their objection, there wouldn't have been time. And it's almost impossible to get thousands of people to agree on anything, especially if those thousands of people are young athletes who know that there is someone out there who wants the gold medal, and may compete for it even if others don't.

But listen, once again, to the official statement about Kumaritashvili's death; read the lawyers' language in every sentence:

"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. The technical officials of the [luge governing body] were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."

Really? They concluded that, to absolute certainty, so hastily? Then why, if they believed the course was safe, did they immediately build the higher wall? Why did they reconfigure the ice? Why did they belatedly pad the steel posts? Why did they have the athletes start lower on the course?

You don't have to be especially cynical to consider the possibility that they were trying to avoid a Litigation Olympics. And in so doing, they were intentionally trashing a young man who they knew would never be able to speak up in his own defense.

His family, in the Republic of Georgia, was reeling. In their grief they couldn't be expected to fully comprehend the machinations behind what was taking place as the Olympic officials announced to the world that their son's death was his own doing. By the time they could process what the Olympic executives had said, the games were under way, the cash registers were ringing, the television screens of the world were awash in color and motion.

It may turn out that Nodar Kumaritashvili did make some mistakes on that run down the luge course. But no athlete should be given the death penalty for not being perfect -- and no sporting body, before the athlete can even be laid to rest, should say that the responsibility for his death should be placed solely on him.

The Olympic moment that never happened -- the athletes standing together to say: No games until you apologize for your callousness, for your lack of humanity, for your insult not just to one of us but to all of us -- would have riveted the world. It would have been a lesson in what the Olympics are supposed to be about: the best athletes on the planet, coming together to represent the highest ideals.

The Games would have gone on -- the organizers, their bluff called for the most admirable of reasons, would have had no choice but to say in front of a global audience that they were sorry.

The Olympic spirit would never have burned brighter.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.