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Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia competes during luge training ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, February 10, 2010. Kumaritashvili was killed after crashing during a training run February 12. (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)
Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia competes during luge training ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, British Columbia, February 10, 2010. Kumaritashvili was killed after crashing during a training run February 12. (PAWEL KOPCZYNSKI)

Luge death

Vancouver's shame Add to ...

This Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the opening of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili.

As more anniversaries pass I'm confident Vancouver will go down as one of the seminal moments in Canadian sports history, if not our cultural history; the fatal crash of the 21-year-old Georgian luger will remain its one irredeemable stain.

I was in Vancouver recently and barely recognized the place. The Olympic torch, still burning, looked lonely without the teeming throngs of tourists lining up to see it; the streets of the city seemed strangely barren minus the red-clad smiling crowds.

It was two weeks when as a country we learned how to celebrate ourselves with passion and without apology; there are worse things.

In the buildup to the anniversary we can expect a lot of perspective and reminiscences; nearly all joyous, and even the moments that were not that seemed to offer some kind of benefit - a lesson; a moment of connectivity.

Brian McKeever being coldly left out of the mix in cross-country skiing would have been less odious had the powers that be not felt so comfortable using his story to promote their sport at the Games.

But McKeever's grace in the face of adversity made even that moment somehow worthy. He didn't spray blame; he wished his teammates the best and instead went to the Paralympics and won gold.

There is no point pretending something positive came out of the sudden and untimely death of Joannie Rochette's mother; but the event provided a common forum for the kind of grief nearly all of us have felt privately at some stage. How many meaningful conversations were struck out of Rochette's public pain?

The exception to all of this has to be the death of Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger, who nearly stopped the Games in their tracks the morning of the opening ceremony.

In their story Monday Rod Mickleburgh and Jeff Blair reveal another disquieting layer in a tragedy that will forever mark 2010: that VANOC chief John Furlong was aware that the sliding track at Whistler was pushing the limits of what was safe and was concerned they - VANOC - would be blamed if something went wrong.

Having been advised of the concerns the International Luge Federation (FIL) had about the speeds sliders were hitting at Whistler - nearly 10-per-cent faster than the 135 km/h recommended -- Furlong sent an e-mail wondering about VANOC's culpability in case of an accident.

"An athlete gets badly injured or worse, and I think the case could be made that we were warned and did nothing," wrote Furlong in March of 2009. "That said, I'm not sure where the way out is on this. Our legal guys should review at least."

The legal guys came back and said, basically, VANOC was not on the hook; it was FIL's responsibility.

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."

UPDATE: VANOC responds to Globe story

The moment of Nodar Kumaritashvili's crash can provide no great benefit to anyone, and the unwillingness of those in authority to accept responsibility means that its aftermath won't either.

In the 24 hours after he died, the verdict was the crash was driver error. The report by the FIL two months later explained the circumstances more thoroughly, but still blamed the driver, not anyone associated with building a track generating speeds well in excess of what was deemed safe, even in an inherently dangerous sport. Those findings were echoed by the coroner's report in October.

And now we know that the person in charge of the whole party was worried enough something bad was going to happen that he got his legal guys on it. Are we comforted that once the lawyer's read the fine print, it was full-speed ahead, and then some?

There is a lot Canadians should be proud of when it comes to Vancouver 2010; and much we can take forward from them.

Learning about the willingness of authorities to be accountable at the most fundamental level isn't on the list.

There is still time; there is time for something to be rescued. Will someone use the anniversary to admit mistakes? To accept responsibility? To acknowledge that something, regrettably, slipped through the cracks?

There is time, but don't hold your breath.

 

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