Commentary

For once, athletes' fears must be heard

Updated: February 23, 2010, 2:59 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- When world-class athletes begin to talk of fear, the people in power should listen, for it is a word you never hear from top-level athletes.

NFL players face paralysis or worse on every play in that Sunday afternoon car-wreck they call a profession and never say they are afraid to step onto the field.

The general idea of boxing is to punch another human being so hard, so many times, in enough debilitating places to send them into bloody unconsciousness, but you never hear boxers say they are afraid to step into the ring.

The closest you get to addressing the fear factor in baseball -- even though being hit with a baseball has ended careers and lives -- is with nervous, macho comedy, like when John Kruk bailed out on the fireballing Randy Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game after Johnson threw a 98 mph fastball over his head to the backstop.

But at the Whistler Sliding Center, where the final two medal events take place this week (women's bobsled and men's four-man bobsled), fear of the Whistler luge track is out in the open among the best, most decorated athletes. American Shauna Rohbock, the heavy medal favorite going into Tuesday's first two heats of the women's event, said the designers of the Whistler track "went overboard" with its speed and tight turns. Rohbock has been saying for months that the track was the fastest she'd ever been on, but like most athletes turned the speed of the track into a challenge.

It is the conversation that has served as a flash point for these Games, one that likely will produce major changes for the sport and is the clearest red flag for the International Olympic Committee.

"Of course you're scared. You're going down 90 miles an hour down a sheet of ice," said American bobsledder John Napier. "But there's a difference between being terrified and being nervous. There is fear. This is what we've chosen. You know going down that you have the lives of three other guys in your hands."

Death has a way of making things serious, and following the death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run hours before the opening ceremonies, the vaunted speed of the Whistler track is suddenly no longer a virtue. Nor is the decision by the Canadians to withhold use of the lightning-fast track, which is seen as mere gamesmanship to gain a competitive edge. Now, that decision looks negligent, the fast-faster-fastest credo soberly discredited.

"More runs wouldn't have changed the result, but I think it would have been safer," said American bobsledder Steven Holcomb following his sixth-place finish in two-man bobsled. "I think you put Olympic ice out here where it's the fastest and the trickiest ice and you have very few runs, it's going to be trickier and you're going to have more crashes."

One reason no one talks about fear is because it is difficult to simultaneously excel while being afraid. Most top athletes have, to an extent, conquered fear long before reaching the top of a profession. Learning to not be afraid of the ball is something you learn in Little League. Learning to rely on technique and ability is something lugers learn before puberty.

But as sports get more physical and more difficult, the dangers more obvious, the real reason no one talks about fear is because no one wants to lose face. In a sports world of machismo and muscles, fear is for sissies, for the noncommitted, for the weak. And toughness-attacking ridicule is soon to follow.

But nobody is laughing now; and if one thing is certain in the world of Olympic sliding sports, change will follow after these Games are over. How teams will qualify for luge, bobsled and skeleton likely will be affected.

So far, the reaction by the IOC has been disgraceful. After Kumaritashvili was killed, the IOC and the Canadian Olympic Committee blamed the luger for his own death faster than you could say "Warren Commission." Both committees used the term "human error," a politically expedient way to deflect accountability. Too much was riding on the success of the Vancouver Games for real quality discussion to occur.

During the week, the whispering campaign has largely been that the kid wasn't Olympic-ready, and his experience level was not sufficient enough to head down the track that eventually ended in his death.

"You have these small countries that come out and they don't have the funding that the Germans have, or the coaching staffs," Holcomb said. "I have five coaches. They're using the international coach, which is one guy watching all these little countries. It is kind of unfair. It's hard to say who deserves more runs and who doesn't, but more runs would have helped a lot. But it is what it is."

The sport of luge has taken a major hit during these Games because the message being sent is that the Olympic selection process designed for maximum participation is putting lives in danger. That, by definition, must force change.

"That's where I really feel they need to open these tracks up. This should change the way we qualify teams. If you're from Brazil or Jamaica or Ghana, or one of these countries that doesn't have the experience, we need to make it mandated that these countries be on these tracks in the future early on," said American bobsledder Mike Kohn, who is an experienced driver but had zero runs on the Whistler track. "You need two years out from the Games, you need to be on this track so when the games come, we can say, 'Look, you've had 150 runs down this track.' And maybe require they take 30 from the [lower] start, and then gently move them up, even if they've never been on a sled before.

"They have to get experience. You can't allow these countries that don't have experience to come down these tracks when they don't have it."

The best of the best are talking openly about facing the fear factor of this track, and the IOC should listen. Already, the IOC and the Russian organizers announced that the luge track for the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, will be nearly 20 mph slower than the track in Whistler.

"Eventually, you have to go down the track," said Gregory Saint-Genies, a French skeleton slider who finished 15th here. "It was fast. We definitely needed more time with the track."

Perhaps it is an example of the level of enlightenment on the part of these athletes, tough enough to compete but aware of their mortality.

And maybe, in an odd sort of way, we need more fear -- or at least the ability to acknowledge it -- in sports. Perhaps it would create real discussion in the National Football League, a sport that has always been physical but is reaching dangerous levels because the heightened levels of speed and power and technology have combined to turn men into human projectiles.

The macho culture that is part of the game is also something most of us were happy to discard after graduating the 10th grade. But the conversation has to start somewhere.

When Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jacques Plante first wore a mask nearly 60 years ago, his manhood was certainly threatened, but history has proven him to be vindicated. The same is true for helmets in hockey. A message is being sent by the athletes. If no one at the IOC listens, the result will be another human error, this time committed by the people wearing the suits.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston " and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.