Luge video crashes into controversy

Published On:
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Printer-friendly version

The Winter Olympics delivered shock and awe Friday even before the opening ceremonies were underway, and it’s unlikely anything that happens during the next two weeks of competitive games will be remembered as much as the tragic luge crash that took the life of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old Georgian luger, died during a training run on a course when he lost control of his sled while rounding a sharp bend. Clocking in at close to 90 mph, Kumaritashvili was launched into the air off his sled and flung head first into a steel pillar.

Video captured his body flipping airborne, unavoidably hurtling toward the pillar before impact. A loud thud rang from the metal beam as Kumaritashvili smashed into it and his body was left limp and lifeless.

If that description was graphic enough for you, try watching the video. Thanks to the nightly news broadcasts of NBC, CBS and ABC, millions of viewers did see the crash, as they aired it repeatedly and — in CBS’s case — in slow motion.

I was in horror watching the 13-second clip, but like a pile-up on the Interstate, I couldn’t look away. The footage is revolting and heart-wrenching — but deeply compelling.

And many others felt the same. The footage of the first-time Olympian’s graphic death naturally made its way around the buzzing Internet before the International Olympic Committee stepped in to claim copyright infringement and take it down. The video can still easily be found, but Google agreed to remove it from YouTube and block the footage from appearing in searches.

Either the IOC has no understanding of how quickly videos can go viral across the Web, or they’re buckling under the controversy surrounding their decision to allow NBC and other networks to show the video in the first place.

The networks’ decision to run the video may or may not have been the right decision. It’s difficult to balance the need to inform with the need to minimize harm and show compassion, but it’s a discussion that needs to be made after careful consideration.

Unfortunately, broadcast journalism often falls under the mentality of “if it’s available, use it.” From asinine technology (holograms interviews on CNN) to controversial footage, it’s a leap before you look environment in the broadcast world.

It’s unlikely the video of Kumaritashvili’s death would have been shown at all had he been an American. If his family and friends lived in America and watched American television, the decision to show Kumaritashvili hurdling toward his demise would have been considered insensitive and unnecessary, a damaging reminder to an already grief-stricken community.

The stinging images of 9/11 victims plunging to their deaths from atop the World Trade Center reverberated across the country because of the proximity of the event in place and emotion. Those were our people, and we didn’t want to see their tragedy.

But because Kumaritashvili has a name that is hard to pronounce and speaks a foreign language, his death has been used to remind us of the harsh realities of competitive sports and, hopefully, will serve as a guide when video captures moments of human tragedy in the future.

Reach Dustin at dustin.volz@asu.edu