Is “faster, higher, stronger” better?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Every two years, the Olympic Games crowns champions, creates national heroes and gives birth to legends. Behind each champion is another athlete who was a little slower, a little less precise in technique and perhaps one who took more risk than his skill could tolerate. The body has a very narrow range of normal and those who fall away risk grave injury. The mind has the potential to push the body beyond its limits and equipment, course design and safety nets may not be enough to prevent tragedy.

The Sochi games have had their share of the agony of defeat. The ABC Wide World of Sports opening montage featured Vinko Bogataj who came crashing off a ski jump, exemplified the reason why many watch speed sports and it isn’t necessarily to enjoy the thrill of victory. A few Sochi examples:

  • Russian skier Maria Komissarova suffered a fracture dislocation of her thoracic spine during a practice run, requiring emergent surgery to stabilize her spine. There is no word whether she suffered damage to her spinal cord and paralysis.
  • Moguls skier, Heidi Kloser of the US, fractured her femur and torn her ACL in a fall. Surgery will likely be required but not emergently. Her recovery could take a year, though fellow US teammate and ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, was able to return to competition after 5 months.
  • Mark McMorris of Canada broke ribs when he fell snowboarding, ending his Olympic competition. There isn’t much one can do for broken ribs, except wait for them to heal and providing pain relief to allow for deep breathing and keeping the lungs expanded and preventing pneumonia. Time off training? About 4-6 weeks.
  • Back injuries hit Russian skater Evgeni Plushenko and Swedish hockey player Henrik Zetterberg, ending their stay in Sochi. Plushenko retired. Zetterberg’s injury is more secretive in the way of the NHL, where injuries are described in the most broad of terms.

As more cities compete to host the Olympics, there seems to be a want to design the steepest downhill course, the fastest bobsled track and the most challenging halfpipe and snowcross. The athletes devote their lives to training and pushing the limits of their endurance to pursue the Olympic motto of “faster, higher, stronger”. The extreme course design combined with the stronger athletes maximizes the risk and minimizes the tolerance for error.

Speed can win or it can kill and there is a very narrow edge between the two. The athlete who plays it safe may be an Olympian but won’t win gold.  The reach for the medals podium leaves many injured and by the wayside. The champions are honored by it is the rare broken athlete who is even acknowledged. We need to remember Luger Nodar David Kumaritashvili at Vancouver, Albertville speed skier Nicholas Bochatay, and skier Ross Milne and luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski at Innsbruck who all died during competition.

A vicious circle has been created where athletes push the natural boundaries of gravity and the tensile strength of bones, ligaments and tendons. Spectators may not appreciate the speed and distance that are in play for many of the sports. To them, the competition may well be part of a video game where a fall or crash are replayed in slow motion and the athletes seem expendable and replaceable. It is hard to appreciate that the Sochi men’s downhill has a slope of 46 degrees, speeds of 90 mph and jumps where skiers may fly200 feet in the air. All this for the glory of gold.

Most sports continue to adjust their rules to limit injury potential but the IOC and its associated sports federations seem to be aggressive in deciding that is fast is good, faster is always better. Course architects make the next Games more spectacular because they can and not because it is better for the athlete or the sport. The modern Olympic ideal has changed from the vision of its founder Pierre de Coubertin to one more aligned with Vince Lombardi.

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”      – Lombardi

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”     – de Coubertin


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