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A Death on Ice in Russia

alexei101408.jpgThe fervent brand of nationalism that has flourished in Vladimir Putin’s Russia has taken on many forms, from Nashi youth rallies to nostalgic trends of consumerism to violence against immigrants. But perhaps the most vibrant arena for these patriotic exercises in national pride and supremacy (almost exclusively defined by comparison to the United States) is within sports nationalism. Many have already commented on Russia’s bid, beginning last year, to build a competing elite ice hockey platform known as the Kontinental Hockey League (Континентальная Хоккейная Лига, or KHL), which would eventually overcome the popular National Hockey League in the United States, and lure away all the premiere talent with higher salaries. Look no further than how the state-run media has covered the rise of the KHL to see the enthusiasm of injecting nationalism into this sporting competition. All of this raises some interesting questions following the unexpected and tragic death of the 19-year-old hockey phenom (and leading prospect for the New York Rangers) Alexei Cherepanov, who suffered a fatal heart attack during a KHL game last night.

First and foremost, one can’t help but feel total and complete sympathy for the friends and family of Mr. Cherepanov. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.However, like any sporting accident, questions are already beginning to surface about whether something could have been done to save his life. Sportsnet.ca points to the investigations into deaths of previous hockey players, such as the Latvian Sergei Zholtok, who died while playing in his hometown of Riga:

Was the proper medical treatment employed in the critical moments after he collapsed on the way to the dressing room? Was medical staff aware of his heart arrhythmia, and how to properly deal with it at the moment of truth that night back in Latvia during the lockout of 04-05?

The New York Times Slap Shot blog writes:

The K.H.L. has convened its own special commission to “ascertain the circumstances” surrounding Cherepanov’s death under the leadership of Vice President of Hockey Operations Vladimir Shalaev (pictured here in a 2005 article on the transfer agreement with the N.H.L., and appearing in this interview with Vesti Sport on Tuesday, in which he discusses the lack of adequate medical equipment at the Vityaz rink). His committee has requested the necessary official documents on the incident and has asked for testimony from people linked to the game by noon tomorrow.In the transcript of the Vesti Sport interview, Shalaev says, “At the time when all this happened, the ambulance was not present and that is a flagrant violation.”

Meanwhile there are reports from regional investigators which suggest that Cherepanov suffered from chronic ischemia — a medical condition when not enough blood gets to the heart or other organs — and should not have been allowed to play in the game. Pavel Krasheninnikov, who sits on the Russian Hockey Federation’s supervisory council and is a member of the State Duma, said “There are elements of negligence here.“There are several general conditions which compounded the situation leading to Cherepanov’s death. One is the country’s notoriously antiquated health care and public safety infrastructure (such as rules for mandatory fire extinguishers and first aid kits), and the criminally slow response times for emergency medical service.As an illustration, I point to the description of the murder of journalist Paul Klebnikov in Steve LeVine’s latest book. Most people think that Klebnikov was simply killed instantly in the street by his assassins. What actually happened was that despite being shot four times, he stayed alive for quite a while longer. It took one hour for the ambulance to arrive at the scene, and when it got there, it had no oxygen bottle. When the poor man finally arrived to the hospital, he got stuck on a broken down elevator beyond the reach of doctors, hours after the shooting, where he finally bled to death. Arguably the famous Forbes journalist had more than one murderer, if we consider this systemic failure.This also wouldn’t be the first time in recent years that public safety preparedness has claimed lives. Despite Russia’s resurgence, wealth, and glamor, the country remains quite a terrible place to suffer an accident. A 2007 report in the IHT comments:

Respect for law, safety and public health, and the Russian government’s ability to govern, still lag far behind the Kremlin’s restored sense of self, as evidenced by the scale at which Russia’s population suffers from fires.More than 17,000 people died in fires in 2006 in Russia, nearly 13 for every 100,000 people. This is more than 10 times the rates typical of Western Europe and the United States, according to statistics from Russia’s government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and the Geneva Association, a Swiss organization that analyzes international fire statistics.

True, the young hockey star playing for Avangard Omsk was not maliciously gunned down like a journalist, nor was there a fire in the building or a terrorist hostage situation. But questions are going to be asked about why there was no defibrillator on hand during such a high profile sporting event. The family will deserve to know why the ambulance took so long to arrive, and exactly what this “negligence” represented. It is standard practice at most modern sports arenas to have an ambulance on standby from the start of a match to the very end – even for interscholastic competition. But there was no ambulance present when Cherepanov’s heart stopped late in last night’s KHL game, because the medical crew had already gone for the night.One sports analyst has already asked the most difficult question: Would Alexei Cherepanov be alive today if he had collapsed on the bench of the New York Rangers in the NHL instead of Avangaard Omsk in the KHL? The Slap Shot blog was rather blunt about the shortcomings in medical care: As it stands now, there are players in some North America beer leagues who might have gotten better emergency care than Alexei Cherapanov.I wish I could say we were confident that the official investigation into this tragic death will produce results. However, as we have learned from a diverse number of cases, the Russian judicial authorities seem more adept at manufacturing false political cases than solving real ones.I also wonder what the reaction would have happened if the situation were reversed – if somehow an elite American hockey player, a future prospect for one of the KHL teams, were cut down in his prime by a tragic accident on the ice, compounded by potentially negligent medical care. Some may recall that a few years ago, the Kremlin and its national press made a big political uproar about a few unfortunate and sketchy cases of Russian orphans receiving mistreatment (and in at least one case, a negligent death) in their adopted American families. Outraged by the immoral lack of safety in these American households, the Russian government drastically scaled back adoptions to the United States.I highly doubt that we will see Barack Obama and John McCain suddenly playing crass politics and sports nationalism with Russia over the death of an athlete in tomorrow night’s debate, but I wouldn’t put it past Pravda if the reverse were true.