James Burns: Black cloud will disappear

February 15, 2010 

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SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG James Burns sports editor JAMES BURNS COLSIG BURNSCOLSIG COLSIG

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

The Olympic Games are supposed to start with the lighting of a torch -- not a torch blown out.

Yet there was the city of Vancouver, British Columbia -- the epicenter of the sporting world for the next two weeks -- gut-punched by the Grim Reaper, just hours before its celebration of life and athleticism, energy and camaraderie. Just hours before the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, the 21-year-old daredevil on ice from the country of Georgia, died shortly after a training accident for the men's luge. This much we already know.

Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled, flew over a cement wall and into an unpadded steel post near the finish line. He landed on a metal walkway, left leg in the air, left foot propped on the wall.

According to reports, medics reached him within seconds of the crash and began life-saving efforts but it was too late.

He was dead. His flame forever blown out.

To those entrenched in Vancouver, the news undercut the anticipation of that night's festivities.

"Here you have a young athlete that lost his life in pursuing his passion," IOC president Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press.

"He had a dream to participate in the Olympic Games. He trained hard and he had this fatal accident.

"I have no words to say what we feel." His death, he added, "clearly casts a shadow over these games."

How about you -- how do you feel? Has this dampened your Olympic spirit?

If your answer is "no," don't feel bad.

It doesn't make you ignorant or unkind. It doesn't make you a cold or heartless or the least bit insensitive. How many of you even remembered that the luger was the fourth athlete to die during the Winter Games? Competitors died in 1964 and 1992. How many of us remember their fates?

More than anything, the Olympic Games are about discovery -- discovery of heroes and villains, events and storylines. And with each day there's something new to marvel at. Like watching speed skater Anton Apolo Ohno race into the record books -- with the help of two slip-sliding Koreans. Or tracking Lindsey Vonn and her worrisome shin. Will it keep the American skier from laying claim to the "Vonncouver" Games?

And for that simple fact, Kumaritashvili's death, as tragic and disturbing as it may have been, won't cast a pall over these Winter Games. Go ahead and mourn his loss, process those feelings, but the tragedy won't hang like a black cloud over the cauldron.

I promise you that.

His story will run like a powerline through these Olympics, strung along through each event, maintaining its strength and voltage -- but only because NBC and other media outlets want it to.

But for the viewing public, folks like you and me, the Games march on.

They always do.

I will say this: when it comes to deaths among athletes in mainstream sports, we, as fans, have a tendency to feel a sense of grief or guilt. As if they were family. As if they were part of us. A piece of the game seems to fade with our fallen brother or sister.

It happened when Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the

2001 Daytona 500.

Then there were Payne Stewart and Cory Lidle, both involved in airplane accidents.

Having said all this, the Winter Olympics isn't mainstream. It isn't even the Summer Olympics, which has morphed over the years thanks to an infusion of bona fide stars (NBA players) and rare athletes (Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt).

It sounds awful, but by the middle of this week the world -- except for the Republic of Georgia -- won't be altogether consumed with funeral arrangements, Kumaritashvili's story or the stability of these Games.

This, I presume, is especially true of Americans watching from home. Give us a few days to digest the news and explore our feelings and then...

Well, the machine is fully operational again, firing on all cylinders, thirsting for medals, praying for a Miracle on Ice II and twisting on our couches with new-found stars like Shaun White, or slalom champion Julia Mancuso.

Again, it's not ignorance.

It's not being unkind.

Ultimately, it's the truth.

For three-plus years, winter athletes compete on the back pages of our sports pages and magazines. Or for a few seconds on Sports Center.

If that.

World Cup skiing, biathlon shootouts, curling and snowboarding fail to register with even the heartiest of sports fans; its "superstars" remain faceless and sometimes nameless. Heck, even the Winter Games' marquee event -- figure skating -- struggles to crack the surface of relevance during non-Olympic years.

(Unless someone's broken the law.)

But every fourth year, we stake our flags in the ground and blindly pick favorites. The network that won the right to broadcast the games -- and its multimillion-dollar sponsorships in the form of commercials -- will pause now and then to mention the fatality that happened during a training run.

So go ahead, feel sad for Kumaritashvili, his family and that an event four years in the making had to endure such a terrible, unimaginable start.

But chances are those feelings for a stranger will vanish -- if they haven't already -- replaced instead with something we all know to be true:

The Games go on.

They always do.

James Burns is sports editor/managing editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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