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No one told VANOC luge track was dangerous, Furlong says

Vanoc CEO John Furlong attends an IOC press conference at the Main Press Centre during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics on February 12, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia was killed on February 12, 2010 after crashing while making a practice run in training.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images/Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Nobody ever told Winter Games organizers that the record-fast Olympic luge track was dangerous, VANOC chief John Furlong said Monday, despite sending an e-mail 11 months before the Games worrying that an athlete could be badly hurt on the course.

"They said it was fast, they didn't say it was dangerous," Mr. Furlong said, referring to numerous past comments from officials of the International Luge Federation (FIL) who were responsible for ensuring that the Olympic track was safe for competition.

VANOC would have shut the event down if organizers had had any worries that athlete safety was in jeopardy, Mr. Furlong declared. By the time the Olympics began, he said, VANOC had been assured by FIL officials that all necessary changes to the track had been made. "They are the best experts in the world, and they said it was safe," he said.

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Mr. Furlong was responding to a furor that has erupted since his internal e-mail was disclosed by the media. That March, 2009, e-mail was prompted by a letter from FIL president Josef Fendt to the Whistler track designer, outlining Mr. Fendt's alarm over its unprecedented high speeds.

After learning of Mr. Fendt's letter, Mr. Furlong suggested "our legal guys" review the information.

"Imbedded in this note [from Mr. Fendt]is a warning that the track is, in their view, too fast and someone could get badly hurt," he explained. "An athlete gets badly injured or worse, and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing."

The response from VANOC staff, after checking with the FIL, was that nothing more needed to be done, except to continue with modifications to the track that the federation had requested.

"If they had wanted something different, they would have asked us," Mr. Furlong said. "Our job is to leave it to them. This is not an area in which we have any technical expertise."

Mere hours before the opening ceremonies, Nodar Kumaritashvili, a young, relatively inexperienced luger from Georgia, was killed instantly when he was catapulted out of his sled at high speed on a training run and struck a metal pole outside the track.

The Whistler track produced speeds nearly 20 kilometres an hour faster than the 135 km/h projected by the track designer.

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In an interview with The Associated Press, David Kumaritashvili, the dead luger's father, said he was angry that VANOC had not taken more action to protect athletes on the track, given Mr. Furlong's early concerns.

"I am indignant that they were aware the track was dangerous and failed to make it safer. They did not take any measures," he said. "And that led to the death of my son."

Documents obtained by the media also revealed ongoing disagreements between the FIL and the International Bobsleigh Federation, which share jurisdiction over the sliding facility, about the extent of revisions needed to make the track safer.

At one point, major changes were proposed to six curves on the course, including the one that led to Nodar Kumaritashvili's accident. In the end, however, only two curves were significantly redesigned, and the FIL accepted the final plans.

After receiving Mr. Furlong's e-mail, VANOC sports director Tim Gayda said he discussed Mr. Fendt's letter outlining FIL's speed concerns with the organizing committee's top lawyer, Ken Bagshaw.

Mr. Bagshaw advised him there was nothing more VANOC needed to do. He pointed out that VANOC was only copied on the letter, Mr. Fendt had been more concerned about the proposed Sochi track for the 2014 Winter Games than the Whistler facility and VANOC was already doing everything asked of it by the luge federation.

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On Monday, Mr. Furlong denied that he had been seeking advice on VANOC's legal liability in the event of a serious accident on the track.

"We just felt it was a good idea for our legal team to look at our relationship [with FIL]" he said.

A coroner's inquest into the tragedy found that a driving error by Mr. Kumaritashvili was the major cause of the accident, but that the crash would not have been so serious without the track's extreme swiftness.

A year later, Svein Romstad, the long-time general secretary of the International Luge Federation, remains equally baffled and haunted by what happened. During more than three decades of racing and luge officialdom at the highest levels, he had never seen anything like his horrifying mishap.

"He made a driving error, but he shouldn't be dead, right? If driving errors ended in death, I wouldn't be talking to you," Mr. Romstad said. "But this run was so unique, in that 'a' happened, 'b' happened, 'c' happened and 'd' happened. It was, as they say, a perfect storm. We never thought something like this could occur. One little difference here or there, and I think the result would have been very different."

Almost always, when a sled hits a wall at 130 km/h, as did the Georgian luger's, it either disintegrates or bounces back into the track, Mr. Romstad said.

But Mr. Komaritashvili's sled "compressed, then de-compressed … which catapulted him out," he said. "I've never experienced something like that before, and I still don't understand it. I can't explain how devastating this has been to the federation and myself."

In a statement, the International Olympic Committee noted that the deadly crash was "thoroughly investigated" by both the B.C coroner's office and the International Luge Federation.

"Both reports clearly indicated that the Nodar's death was accidental and was the consequence of a complex series of interrelated factors, which when combined led to the tragedy," said the IOC.

"The safety of the athletes at the Olympic Games is paramount. And since Vancouver, FIL has worked on a series of recommendations to be applied in future luge competitions including the Olympic Winter Games."

Meanwhile, FIL officials will return to the Whistler track next month for the first time since the Olympics ended. They intend to conduct yet another comprehensive safety audit of the track, with a view to resuming top-flight competition on the world's fastest luge facility, despite its tragic history.

The process, known as homologation, will consider whether to move the start back to the top of the 1,400 metre track, where it was before the young Georgian's fatal accident.

But Mr. Romstad said the luge federation is wary of going all that way - the Whistler track is already at the maximum speed that luge athletes can safely handle. "We're not ruling out going back to the top," he said, "but we are going to do what we believe is the right thing."

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