The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili is a shocking moment, not just at this year’s Olympics, but in Olympic history. Death in competition (or, in this case, in training) has thankfully been rare, even though the athletes do a lot of things that would be dangerous for you or me.
There were only two Winter Olympics where this happened before. The first was the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Both Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki, a luger (like Kumaritashvili) and Ross Milne, a skier, were both killed in training. Then as now, there were complaints that the runs were not safe: Kay-Skrzypecki, a Polish luger who became a British citizen, was killed when his toboggan “shot off the lipless chute,” according to the Associated Press report of January 27, 1964. A few days before that, the Australian Milne had gone flying off the downhill skiing track and crashed into a tree. The 1964 Olympics were already operating in the shadow of tragedy: the death of the entire U.S. figure skating team in a plane crash in 1961 had completely shaken up the world of winter sports. In response to the Innsbruck accidents, the AP reported, new lips were “added to the dangerous curves of the toboggan run, two extra compulsory gates were installed along the men’s downhill, [and] the women’s downhill received three extra gates.” Most importantly, the Olympic committee responded to the Milne tragedy by covering all the nearby tree trunks with straw.
The only other death at the Winter Olympics before this one was the death of Swiss skier Nicholas Bochatay in 1992 in La Lechere, France. A day before the closing ceremonies, Bochatay was training when he crashed head-on into the machine that was smoothing out the snow.
There have only been two previous deaths that occured during actual competition, and in both cases, the athletes may have been done in by their attempts to enhance their performance. At the 1912 Summer Games in Stockholm, runner Francisco Lázaro covered himself with wax to ward off sunburns, which was supposed to improve his endurance in the grueling marathon. But the wax also blocked the pores in his skin and prevented him from perspiring, and he collapsed and died of dehydration. In 1960 in Rome, Danish cyclist Knut Jensen collapsed in the middle of a race and died soon after. The president of the Danish Road Racing Federation confirmed that Jensen had been given drugs by his trainer—which later turned out to include amphetamines—but insisted that this did not constitute “doping.”