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VANOC feared injury 'or worse' year before luger's fatal crash Add to ...

Almost a year before the fatal training run of a young Georgian luger at the Vancouver Olympics, VANOC chief John Furlong expressed concern that an athlete could get "badly injured or worse" on the high-speed track and organizers might be accused of doing nothing to prevent it.

Mr. Furlong's unease, outlined in a startling, March, 2009, e-mail obtained by The Globe and Mail, came after he received a copy of a letter to the luge track's designer from the worried president of the International Luge Federation (FIL), Josef Fendt.

Mr. Fendt noted that the Whistler sliding track was recording historic sled speeds that were nearly 20 kilometres an hour faster than the track designer had projected.

"Most of the athletes were able to cope with these extremely high speeds," he wrote to IBG Designs in Germany. "Nevertheless, overstepping this limit would be an absolute unreasonable demand for the athletes. ... This causes me great worry."

After being copied on Mr. Fendt's letter, Mr. Furlong asked the Vancouver Organizing Committee's "legal guys" to look at the situation. The answer came back from Tim Gayda, vice-president for sport: "I don't believe there is anything to do."

VANOC officials have stressed repeatedly that they relied on the FIL for luge track expertise, and made every change requested by the federation.

Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, died on his sixth and final training run just hours before the Games' opening ceremonies on Feb. 12. After hitting the wall on one of the final curves, he was catapulted out of his sled onto a metal pole above the track, and instantly killed.

Disclosure of Mr. Furlong's e-mail and Mr. Fendt's letter - among many documents submitted to the coroner investigating the accident - revives the controversy on the speed and alleged danger of the Whistler facility, as the luge tragedy approaches its first anniversary.

Svein Romstad, long-time general secretary of the IFL, said the organization would have sought major changes to the Whistler track if it had known ahead of time that speeds would be so much higher than calculated.

But once the track was in operation and FIL saw speed records being shattered, it was too late for any fundamental redesigns.

"The red flags would have gone up, absolutely," Mr. Romstad said in an interview. "Our goal is always to have tracks around 135 kmh, and that was what the designer projected. Instead, we suddenly got to 154 kmh. That was never our intention."

In light of what happened at Whistler, FIL hired an independent evaluator to check speed calculations for the next Olympic sliding track in Sochi, Russia. He confirmed that speeds there would be in the range of 135 kmh.

The federation is also reviewing Olympic qualification standards, given Mr. Kumaritashvili's relative inexperience, and whether to mandate as many as 100 runs for each competitor on any new Olympic facility.

"This has been devastating for us, as a federation. It's not what we're about," Mr. Romstad said. "If we believe we can make changes that can make a difference, we're going to make them."

Still, he insisted that modest modifications made to the Whistler track, coupled with increased training time and forcing competitors to start at lower levels before moving to the top, made the course safe for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Those modifications included added crash barriers, ice refinement in some corners and several wall extensions.

"We kept an eye on the crash ratios. There was nothing out of the ordinary," Mr. Romstad said. "There was nothing that alarmed us as really crazy, that was totally out of the norm."

He said Mr. Fendt's letter was prompted by worry the track designer might make the same speed miscalculation at Sochi, as he did at Whistler.

Yet Mr. Furlong's e-mail read: "Imbedded in this note [cryptic as it may be] is a warning that the track is, in their view, too fast and someone could get badly hurt.

"An athlete gets badly injured or worse, and I think the case could be made that we were warned and did nothing. That said, I'm not sure where the way out is on this. Our legal guys should review at least."

In an interview, Mr. Furlong said he was merely seeking reassurance that VANOC was on the right path by relying on FIL experts to determine track safety and necessary changes, given its unprecedented swiftness.

"We only had one job: build the track, and prepare it in accordance with what they [the international sliding federations]wanted," he said. "We are not experts in this. We expected the sports to provide that expertise."

"But [Mr. Fendt's]reference to the fast track made me ask if there was anything we needed to re-look at. Our guys, after checking with FIL, said 'no'."

Mr. Romstad backed him up. "Everything we thought was needed, VANOC did," he affirmed. "They have to rely on us for guidance. It's hard to indict them."

Meanwhile, the question remains whether Mr. Kumaritashvili, ranked 44th in the world, should even have been allowed to compete on such a fast track. He only scraped into the Olympics as the 38th of 40 qualifiers, because top countries, such as Germany, with many high-ranked lugers, had to restrict their entrants to three.

"We have to ensure that only the best athletes, capable of handling the fastest, most difficult tracks, are at these Games," said Canadian luge coach Wolfgang Staudinger.

"Federations and the athletes sometimes have to grab themselves by the nose and ask: 'Am I fit to do this?' "

Criticism has also been levelled at VANOC for not providing sufficient training time for athletes from other countries on the challenging track.

But Mr. Romstad said the Olympic organizing committee complied with all requirements set by the FIL, which gave the most access in Games history.

However, four days of training, specifically set aside in January, 2010, for athletes from unseeded luge nations such as Georgia, attracted only one country, Argentina.

A month before the Olympics, with only 20 previous journeys down the Whistler track, Mr. Kumaritashvili chose to continue his training in Italy.

 

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