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Some scientists at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, plan to spend some of their break time this month watching TV coverage of the winter Olympics in Sochi.
But they’ve got more than the usual rooting interest in one of the games more obscure sports. From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Steve Carmody of Michigan Radio explains.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, back to safety. On the minds of many in Sochi: the 2010 Winter Olympics Vancouver, where a competitor from the country of Georgia died during a training run on the luge. You might have seen the heartbreaking New York Times story this week about his mother, who still brings dinner to his empty room every night.
Well, scientists at Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan have been working to make the event safer by designing next-generation sleds for the American team. From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody reports.
STEVE CARMODY, BYLINE: Jay Tudor is standing in a nondescript laboratory deep inside the warren of buildings that make up the massive Dow Chemical complex in Midland, Michigan. He's watching a large machine shake and rattle something that looks like a miniature sleigh.
JAY TUDOR: It's a very violent ride. When you put a GoPro camera on the bottom of a sled and watch what actually happens in a given run, it's startling how much activity and action and movement there is, particularly on a rough track like Lake Placid.
CARMODY: Tudor is a member of Dow's research and development team, and he's talking about the sport of luge. Luge is the fastest of the Olympic sled sports. Lying flat on their backs, riders plummet down a nearly mile-long tube of ice at speeds approaching 90 miles an hour on a contraption that is little more than a small seat slung between two curved blades. Dow has been designing sleds for USA Luge for the past seven years. That effort is apparently paying off.
Recently, Kate Hansen became the first American to win a World Cup luge event since 1997, and she did it on a sled designed by Dow. Scott Burr is another Dow R and D scientist. He says the challenge is designing a luge sled that will be comfortable for the rider.
SCOTT BURR: They don't get tense. They let the sled run. And when you get the sled run and you hit your marks, you get the times you're looking for.
CARMODY: Time is very important in a sport where the difference between winning Olympic gold and finishing fourth and missing the podium altogether can be a matter of just hundredths of a second. Duncan Kennedy is a former three-time U.S. Olympian. As the technical manager for USA Luge, he helped Dow design the new sled. He says the new sled balances the need for speed and control, which he says is the essence of luge.
DUNCAN KENNEDY: If you've got a sled that's nervous and jumpy and you can't relax, you will never, ever be fast on that.
CARMODY: Being fast is obviously the goal. Being fast is also what makes luge one of the deadliest Olympic sports. Since luge became an Olympic sport 50 years ago, two men have died at the games, including four years ago at the Vancouver games. Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili died when he crashed on a training run. After the accident, Olympic officials shortened the luge run and designed a slower course for Sochi. But former Olympian Duncan Kennedy doesn't blame the track.
KENNEDY: I hate to say it, but most of the issue with Nodar's death was his - it was his fault, to a large degree.
CARMODY: Kennedy says the Georgian was not experienced enough and was going too fast. But Scott Burr with the Dow design team says the danger is on the minds of the Dow Chemical scientists.
BURR: It is on your mind every second of every design cycle. And so that adds, you know, probably a level of over-engineering,
CARMODY: But Burr says the riders are fearless. The prototypes get tested in Lake Placid, New York, where he says members of the USA Luge team climb into previously untested prototype sleds just to see how fast they can slide down the track.
BURR: As crazy as it seems to us, it looks like a very dangerous sport, and amongst themselves, you'll hear the words we consider this a very safe sport. This is a very safe sport. We can crash and get up and go back, you know, a few minutes later and run again.
CARMODY: Dow scientists are busy now designing the next generation sled for the U.S. Luge team. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Steve Carmody, in Midland, Michigan.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, aside from the luge and the slopes, protests against Russia's anti-gay laws are happening in 19 cities across the globe today. In Jerusalem, activists chanted no excuses, homophobia is terror.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
HOBSON: The demonstrations were organized by All Out. That's a global gay rights organization, and supporters from Melbourne, Australia to New York are asking Olympic sponsors like Coca-Cola and Visa to speak out for gay rights. As we've talked about in June of last year, Russia banned what it called the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors, which a lot of people saw as an attack on gay rights.
And the rhetoric has not softened much. Just last week Sochi's mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, told the BBC's John Sweeney that there are no gay people living in his city.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
MAYOR ANATOLY PAKHOMOV: (Through translation) We don't have them in our town.
JOHN SWEENEY: You don't have them in the town? You sure?
PAKHOMOV: (Through translation) I'm not sure. I don't bloody know them.
SWEENEY: I went to a gay bar last night. Will gay people be welcome to the Sochi Olympics?
PAKHOMOV: (Through translation) Our hospitality will be extended to everyone who respects the laws of the Russian federation and who doesn't impose their habits and their will on others. But yes, everyone is welcome.
HOBSON: Now, President Obama will not be attending the games, and neither will the first lady or the vice president. The president is instead sending three openly gay athletes, including tennis star Billie Jean King, although the news came today that she won't be going to the Opening Ceremonies because her mother is ill. Figure skating legend Brian Boitano is going, and here he is talking to CNN's Piers Morgan, who asked what his message to Vladimir Putin is.
(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)
BRIAN BOITANO: It's a privilege to be here as a guest in your country. I have many friends who I've met competing throughout the world in the Olympics, and I am also honored to be here representing my country and my president's message.
HOBSON: Brian Boitano, on CNN. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.