Death at the Olympics

At Vancouver in 2010, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili went off the course during a training run on the morning of the Opening Ceremony, crashing into a stanchion next to the track, and was killed instantly. This cast a pall over the Opening Ceremony, where a moment of silence was held in his memory, and the Vancouver Games in general, and was later termed by former IOC President Jacques Rogge as the worst moment of his Presidency.

This was not the first time athletes have died at the Olympics, nor was it the first time a luger died in training runs at the Olympics. The best known instance of death at the Olympics, of course, occurred at the 1972 München Summer Olympics when Arab terrorists from the Black September faction invaded the Israeli section of the Olympic Village at 31 Connollystraße and kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, with five Israeli Olympic athletes dying either from a shoot-out or bombs at the Fürstenfeldbruck air base. The athletes killed were David Berger (WLT), Ze’ev Friedman (WLT), Eliezer Halfin (WRE), and Yossef Romano (WLT), and Mark Slavin, a wrestler who was scheduled to compete on the day of the attacks. The coaches and administrators killed were Yossef Gutfreund, Amitzur Shapira, Kehat Shorr, Andrei Spitzer, Yacov Springer, and Moshe Weinberg.

Other athletes have died during training at the Olympic site. In 1964 at Innsbruck, two athletes died during training events just prior to the start of the Winter Olympics. In a macabre coincidence, one was another luger who crashed off the course, Polish-born British luger Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, while the other was Australian downhill skiier Ross Milne. The IOC had the Olympic Flag flown at half-mast throughout the Games, with two black ribbons attached to its bottom edge.

Only two Olympians have died during, or as the result of, actual Olympic competition in medal events. The first was Portuguese marathoner Francisco Lázaro who collapsed during the 1912 marathon race, and died early the next morning. The second was Danish cyclist Knut Enemark Jensen, who collapsed during the 1960 cycling team time trial and died shortly thereafter. It was a very hot day in Rome when Enemark Jensen collapsed. His death has been variously attributed to heatstroke, to a closed head injury from striking his head when he fell (he did not wear a helmet, as was standard in that era), or from the effects of drugs, as he was rumored to have had Ronicol, an amphetamine-like stimulant, in his blood at the time of his death. (Note: Multiple different versions of the cause of death and the status of his drug-related blood tests can be found.) Jensen’s death, and the later death of British cyclist Tom Simpson during an ascent of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France, after which he was found to have had multiple drugs in his body, were the stimuli that prompted the IOC to begin testing for drugs at the 1968 Olympics. Another Olympic athlete died during a demonstration event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics when Austrian Ignaz Stiefsohn crashed during the gliding exhibition, and was killed instantly.

Preparing the courses can be dangerous as well at the Winter Olympics. In 1992 at Albertville speed skiing was a demonstration sport. Swiss speed skiier Nicolas Bochatay was warming up before the qualifying with his teammate Pierre-Yves Jorand. They came up over a blind mogul, but when landing on the other side, Bochatay crashed into the track of a Sno-Cat preparing the course and was killed from internal injuries he suffered. Jorand was uninjured but withdrew from the competition.

At Calgary in 1988 a similar incident occurred before the start of the second run of men’s giant slalom. The 47-year-old Austrian team physician and orthopaedic surgeon Jörg Oberhammer, who was skiing at the base of the hill, collided with another skier, 55-year-old Brian Nock, a technician for Canadian television. Oberhammer was knocked down into the tracks of a snow-grooming machine and was crushed, killing him instantly. Two Swiss skiers, Pirmin Zurbriggen and Martin Hangl, witnessed the event and were badly shaken. Zurbriggen managed to start the second run and would win a bronze medal, but Hangl collapsed at the top of the hill and had to withdraw.

There have been other Olympics-related deaths, more due to acts of God or accidents and not related to training, course preparation, or competition. In 1936 at Berlin, Romanian boxer Nicolae Berechet lost his first round match in the featherweight class on 11 August. In that pre-antibiotic era, three days later he was dead of sepsis from an infection due to a carbuncle. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Italian rower Arrigo Menicocci competed and then a few days later went for a car ride, but was killed in a crash before the Olympics had ended. One other athlete who died during the Olympics, but without ever competing, was Czechoslovakian female gymnast Eliska Mišaková. While training in London before the 1948 Olympics Mišaková contracted poliomyelitis and died on the day the gymnastics competition started. Her sister, Miroslava, was also on the Czechoslovak team and helped them win a gold medal.

Finally, shortly after midnite on 27 July 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics, a bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park, a gathering place for the world’s spectators and many of the athletes. One spectator, Alice Hawthorne, was killed by the bomb and 111 others were wounded. One Turkish cameraman, Melih Uzunyol, ran to the scene to photograph it, and died of a heart attack he sustained in that effort. The bombing was initially attributed to Centennial Olympic Park employee Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused, but was later found to have been set by Eric Rudolph, a religious extremist who seemed to be anti-almost everything except life. He was found to have set other bombs as well, was convicted, and in a plea bargain, sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without parole.

So the Olympic Games usually celebrate athletes and humanity at its finest. But they have also been the scene of great tragedy. All honor to their names.

And now, a moment a silence for those who died and have not always been given that memory.

(Note: the above was written prior to the recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd. We sincerely hope and pray that no amendments will be necessary by the end of the Sochi Olympic Games.)

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