Where do we set the line in sports?

| Sports Columnist
A memorial for Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili, who lost his life during a practice run in Whistler, Canada, on Friday, is on display in Whistler’s downtown. (Wally Skalij | Los Angeles Times | MCT)

A memorial for Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili, who lost his life during a practice run in Whistler, Canada, on Friday, is on display in Whistler’s downtown. (Wally Skalij | Los Angeles Times | MCT)

Following the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was just 21 years old, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told the press “that no sports mistake is supposed to be fatal.” Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has been the case, and, as much as we might pray it isn’t so, it might not be the last.

The last fatality in an international luge event was in 1975, and the last luge death at the Olympics was in 1964. Other sports fatalities and injuries that come to mind are the deaths of mixed martial arts fighter Sam Vasquez in 2007, Al Lucas in the Arena Football League in 2005, and Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500; and the paralysis of NFL offensive lineman Mike Utley in 1991. In addition, boxing matches resulted in six deaths in just the past decade.

When we lose in sports, the common expression is “It’s just a game.” When we remove all of the hype, all of the big venues, all of the money and all of the pressure, sports are just games. In that light, it seems hard to fathom that any game should be the end of a promising life. Even more ironic, it’s exactly the speed that Kumaritashvili was soaring at, the big hit that paralyzed Mike Utley, and the violence that killed Sam Vasquez that, at least in part, attract us fans to these sports. Something seems grotesquely wrong about that.

There’s no consolation in events such as these, but it’s hard to set a line, because sport is, in the end, an integral part of human nature. We witnessed a prime example of this just this month when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl and rallied a city that had been devastated by natural disaster. I also remember that it was the crack of Mike Piazza’s bat that helped return normalcy to New York following 9/11. Men and women of all ages find refuge in sports, whether it be in the vast green fairways of a golf course or the concrete of the local basketball court.

Fans find inspiration, hope, role models and community in our favorite teams and athletes. One might even find a piece of himself: Certainly this was the case for Kumaritashvili, who, shortly before the accident, phoned his parents at home in Georgia and told them that he was going to make them proud.

President Saakashvili is right. No life should end so abruptly in such a lofty pursuit. But from this tragedy comes a greater realization. Sports transcend all sorts of boundaries, from gender to religion and nationality. The outpouring of support from across the globe and the continuation of these Games show that sports can’t stop, but the memory of fallen athletes should never be forgotten.