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Other deaths on the track

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili wasn’t the first Olympic tragedy


 

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili is a shocking moment, not just at this year’s Olympics, but in Olympic history. Death in competition (or, in this case, in training) has thankfully been rare, even though the athletes do a lot of things that would be dangerous for you or me.

There were only two Winter Olympics where this happened before. The first was the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Both Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, a luger (like Kumaritashvili) and Ross Milne, a skier, were both killed in training. Then as now, there were complaints that the runs were not safe: Kay-Skrzypecki, a Polish luger who became a British citizen, was killed when his toboggan “shot off the lipless chute,” according to the Associated Press report of January 27, 1964. A few days before that, the Australian Milne had gone flying off the downhill skiing track and crashed into a tree. The 1964 Olympics were already operating in the shadow of tragedy: the death of the entire U.S. figure skating team in a plane crash in 1961 had completely shaken up the world of winter sports. In response to the Innsbruck accidents,  the AP reported, new lips were “added to the dangerous curves of the toboggan run, two extra compulsory gates were installed along the men’s downhill, [and] the women’s downhill received three extra gates.” Most importantly, the Olympic committee responded to the Milne tragedy by covering all the nearby tree trunks with straw.

The only other death at the Winter Olympics before this one was the death of Swiss skier Nicholas Bochatay in 1992 in La Lechere, France. A day before the closing ceremonies, Bochatay was training when he crashed head-on into the machine that was smoothing out the snow.

There have only been two previous deaths that occured during actual competition, and in both cases, the athletes may have been done in by their attempts to enhance their performance. At the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, runner Francisco Lázaro covered himself with wax to ward off sunburns, which was supposed to improve his endurance in the grueling marathon. But the wax also blocked the pores in his skin and prevented him from perspiring, and he collapsed and died of dehydration. In 1960 in Rome, Danish cyclist Knut Jensen collapsed in the middle of a race and died soon after. The president of the Danish Road Racing Federation confirmed that Jensen had been given drugs by his trainer—which later turned out to include amphetamines—but insisted that this did not constitute “doping.”


 

Other deaths on the track

  1. Could you perhaps clarify the notes about the deaths in 1964 and 1992? Perhaps I'm missing something, but in the second paragraph you say that "The only Winter Olympics where this happened before was the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria" where two athletes died during training, but then in the next paragraph you state that "the only other death at the Winter Olympics before this one was the death of Swiss skier Nicholas Bochatay" who also died during training (emphasis added).

    Is the difference that the 1964 deaths were during training for the Winter Olympics and the 1992 death was during training for post-Olympic events to be held after the Olympics (said training nonetheless occurring before the closing ceremonies of the '92 Olympics were held) or is there some other distinction?

    I was a little confused at the wording here in that you seemed to say at first that this has only happened at one other Winter Olympics besides Vancouver, but then you followed that with a paragraph about another death at a third Winter Olympics.

    • Sir,

      I too was confused, but I think the "this" referred to was the current tragedy.

    • Perhaps you were reading too hastily. If you notice, he said at the top of the second para that there were TWO other WINTER Olympics in which there were deaths before the present one . . . and then goes on to detail Innsbruck and Lechere. Be not so quick to point that big finger, Lord K.

  2. Very sad to see the passing of Nodar Kumaritashvili. It is such an unfortunate tragedy and we must learn from this and make tracks safer so Nodar did not die in vain. May Nodar rest in peace.

  3. Am I the only one who remembers the Russian diver at the Montreal Olympics – hit his head on the platform as he was spinning in the air – dead before he hit the water?? Or was it somewhere else?

    • It happened in July 1983 at the World University Games in Edmonton. His name was Sergei Chalibashvili, from Tblisi, Georgia. I, too thought it happened at the Montreal Olympics, but a little research showed I was off by 7 years. Though I got the year quite wrong, I remember the incident quite well. He died in hospital a few days later.

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