Did Fear Contribute to Olympic Luger’s Death?

News today via ESPN’s website today that Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who died on the track at the Vancouver Olympics, had concerns about the course and voiced them to his father the day before his fatal accident:

The athlete killed on the luge track Friday told his father a day before he died in a training run that he was “scared of one of the turns,” David Kumaritashvili told The Wall Street Journal.

The fact that Kumaritashvili was dreading the very run that killed him adds a poignant touch to an already tragic story, but it also suggests an insight into his death. Anxiety can undermine the fluidity of motor action. As a not-very-skilled downhill skier, I sometimes find myself on slopes that are a little beyond my comfort level. I become tense, and tackling the slope becomes harder still: my legs and feet becomes tense, my weight shifts back, I feel like I’m wrestling with my skis, and I quickly become exhausted. It’s not fun at all .

Obviously, Kumaritashvili’s situation was quite different. He was an expert sledder with years of expertise (his father, as the same story reports, was himself and Olympic luger, so one imagines he started quite young). Yet even profound levels of automaticity can become undone by self-consciousness and anxiety. As I write in my book, in the late ’80s Dan Jansen dominated men’s speed skating in the 500 and 1000 meters. He had the strength and the skill to totally dominated the competition. But each time he competed in the Olympic finals he choked and stumbled or fell.

In Kumaritashvili’s case, a tinge of anticipatory dread before entering a particularly dangerous turn might have been enough to make him tense up, interfering with his balance or timing. Of course, we’ll never know for sure. But his death reminds us that, when it comes to dealing with danger, we have always have two threats on our hands: the external hazard and our own internal response to it.

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