Luge Death Casts Pall Over Opening Ceremony

Sports-Marketing Executives Suggest Tragedy Could Lead to Morbid Curiosity -- and a Boost in Luge Ratings

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The winter games in Vancouver are already struggling with warm temperatures and lack of snow, and Friday brought worse news: the death of Georgian luge slider Nodar Kumaritashvili.

Mr. Kumaritashvili was killed during a training session Friday afternoon and the dominant image to come out of that day wasn't preparation for the opening ceremony, but rather stark photos of the athlete's fatal crash.

Advertisers who hope to use the Olympics to capture the attention of enthusiastic sports fans may also encounter something less savory: higher ratings due to morbid curiosity. Events such as the unfortunate passing of Mr. Kumaritashvili during training "really do drive interest, and certainly for all the wrong reasons," said David M. Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business. It could serve as a "hook that is going to drive ratings."

Officials seem mindful that the death could cast a pall on the normally celebratory proceedings. "The whole Olympic family is struck by this tragedy, which clearly casts a shadow over these Games," said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. Added Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation, in a statement: "This is a terrible accident. This is the gravest thing that can happen in sport, and our thoughts and those of the 'luge family,' are naturally with those touched by this event."

The IOC, ILC and VANOC, the organizing committee of the games, said an investigation is under way into the circumstances of the accident; training was suspended and technical officials were trying to establish causes.

Fascination with the somewhat obscure ice-racing event may drive viewership higher when the event airs in Olympic broadcasts, suggested one sports-marketing expert. Sports aficionados are likely to be interested in "how fast the track is," said Mr. Carter. Olympics viewership tends to broaden when fans can latch on to a particular story or ongoing drama.

While the death represents "a tragedy beyond words," said David Schwab, VP-managing director of Octagon First Call, a celebrity-marketing consultant owned by Interpublic Group of Cos., "it will not affect advertising, as the media buys have already been purchased. Viewership will increase because NBC and media outlets will call out air times and controversy and tragedy intrigue the public."

Mr. Kumaritashvili's wasn't the first death to take place during the Olympics. Francisco Lázaro, a Portuguese runner, was the first to die during the Olympics, collapsing during the marathon in the 1912 games. Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen died during the 1960 summer games after crashing and fracturing his skull.

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