And now hundreds of world-class athletes who are risk-takers well beyond my current comprehension of risk appetite.
When I was growing up in snowy Canada, parents dreaded the hazards and risks that came with the snow, but we kids loved them. I lived an Evel Knievel-like childhood. Frankly, I am shocked I am still alive. With the number of visits I took to the emergency ward, my mother and I were known there on a first-name basis.
To give you a sense of my childhood antics, every winter my girlfriend Stephanie and I built humungous moguls coated with ice on a neighborhood hill. We would then climb to the top of the hill, jump on a rickety sled, aim the sled for the icy mogul and hoped to catch flight like a majestic eagle. The outcome was usually much less glamorous--twisted bodies, elbows in the face, scrapes and broken sleds. It was all "fun and games" only because neither of us miraculously never got "really hurt."
The footage of the Olympic luge athlete, Nodar Kumaritashvili, losing control of his sled and crashing into a support pillar was a swift reminder of how dangerous winter sports can be. He died at age 21 and never got his chance to compete. The Olympic officials concluded that the incident was the result of human error and that "there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."
Nonetheless, they did make adjustments to the track and race and decided to continue the luge competition. Was this the best risk management decision? My own childhood antics force me to contain personal judgment.
But do athletes view the world's most challenging and fast track as a safety concern, or as a dream opportunity and enabler to possibly reach new heights of achievement and reward?
Is it possible that Nodar's death is an indication of something else that needs reviewing about the Olympics and not the track? Maybe an athlete's experience level warrants more attention? Should we maybe review how we decide who gets to compete on such challenging slopes and tracks?
Nodar ranked 44th in the world standings, and his inexperience may have played a factor in his death. We all remember Eddie "The Eagle" from Britain in Olympic ski jumping. His failures endeared him to us around the world. And let's not forget the beloved Jamaican bobsled team and how we enjoyed the novelty of having a tropical country compete in a cold-weather sport. It is exciting to root for the underdog, but unfortunately, we cannot dismiss any longer how it feels when our beloved underdogs get really hurt.
Is it possible that being ranked the best in your country is not enough to allow you to compete in certain high-risk conditions? An added mechanism may need to exist to stop someone like me from taking my rickety sled and giving that Olympic track a whirl!
There very well may be issues that require serious examination, but I am glad the Olympic officials allowed the opportunity for the other athletes to compete. Let's not forget, it is that extraordinary hunger for risk-taking that makes us deeply admire and respect our athletes. That appetite for risk is the essence of who they are and what they live for.
JOANNA MAKOMASKI, the former risk manager for an energy delivery company, is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques with V3 Advisory Group.
April 1, 2010
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