The Olympics are only ever about winning

The body of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian competitor in the luge killed at the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Friday, will arrive back in the icy hills of Bakuriani today.

The coffin will be met by his grieving father David, who yesterday spoke of his sense of loss and incomprehension. “He feared that curve,” he said, holding aloft a photo of his dead son. “I told him, ‘You just take a slower start.’ But he said: ‘Dad, what kind of thing you are teaching me? I have come to the Olympics to try to win’.”

The perilously thin line between extinction and glory is, of course, integral to the curious appeal of what are known as “extreme sports”. Perhaps its adherents, rather like the French existentialists, feel that they are only truly living when they are really close to dying. Indeed, Jean-Paul Sartre might almost have been talking of luge racers when he wrote: “What the artist adds to the canvas are the days of his life: the adventure of living, hurtling towards death”.

Many have attempted to mollify the safety concerns expressed in recent days by taking this idea to its moral limits, arguing that death is, on occasion, unavoidable when young men and women propel themselves down vertiginous tubes of ice at speeds of more than 80mph. They point out that many competitors have blamed the accident on driver error and that the International Luge Federation has issued a statement saying that it could not be blamed on “an unsafe track”.

But others remain deeply uneasy. If the track was safe, why has the course been shortened to begin at the women’s start position, thus reducing speeds around the closing corners? If the precautions were ample, why has a makeshift fence been erected at the top of corner 16? If the structure was blameless, why has the steel support pole against which Kumaritashvili shattered his skull been belatedly padded?

The deepest concern of all, however, relates to the now infamous Own the Podium programme. This was an attempt by the Canadian Olympic Committee to guarantee the success of domestic athletes by squeezing home advantage to the max. In the light of the tragedy one aspect of the programme, in particular, has taken on sinister proportions — namely, the decision to limit the access of foreign athletes to the venues.

It has been reported that the run on which Kumaritashvili died was only his 26th down the rocket-fast course, almost half of which were from the women’s or junior starting positions. His Canadian rivals, by contrast, had practised more than 300 times, giving them a far greater feel for the geometry of the ice.

The question of whether the formal investigation into Kumaritashvili’s death will implicate the lack of practice opportunities could now define what has become one of the most troubled Games in Winter Olympic history.

But it is the collateral damage to the Olympic movement itself that will be of most concern to its regal custodians at the International Olympic Committee. After all, even if the Own the Podium is not found to be responsible for Kumaritashvili’s death, it nevertheless hints at just how far the notion of Olympianism has morphed from the original vision of Baron De Coubertin. The very fact that an organising committee was prepared systematically to undermine the medal prospects of overseas competitors — even to the point of taking risks with their safety — reveals the sham at the heart of the Olympic ideal and the hypocrisy of the Olympic Charter, with its talk of dignity, solidarity and the “harmonious development of man”.

Not that we should be terribly surprised by this. Even at its most noble, the Olympics (as any competitor could tell you) is about the pursuit not of idealism but of naked individualism.

There was no solidarity between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, whose rivalry at the Moscow Games of 1980 will soon be made into a feature film; no camaraderie between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, whose apocalyptic clash in 1988 could be said to have ushered in the modern Olympic era; no sisterly feeling between Dame Kelly Holmes and Maria Mutola as the former charged past, lungs bursting with ambition, to deprive her training partner of gold and glory.

The Olympics have never expressed an ethical imperative, only ever a selfish one. The Games are, to put it bluntly, implacably amoral and quintessentially Darwinian. Economists call it a zero-sum game: my success is synonymous with your failure, my joy with your despair, my glory with your ignominy. It is only because the winner’s podium has room for just one person that the touchpaper of individual ambition is ignited and why nations jockey so feverishly to exploit its propaganda potential. War without the guns, as George Orwell once noted.

Not that there is anything wrong with this — competition and hierarchy are, one suspects, indispensable aspects of the human condition. But that should not prevent us from exposing the carefully sanitised (and extraordinarily lucrative) image of the Olympics for what it is. Nor should it hold us back from pointing out that when the ethos of winning at all costs is taken beyond the constraints of basic morality, the ramifications are not only depressing, but potentially perilous.

Matthew Syed