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Furlong's prescient e-mail comes back to haunt him

VANOC boss John Furlong is a lovely guy, but he is splitting hairs, parsing too finely and misreading the tea leaves.

The end result, given that at the heart of the matter is a dead young man who had the bad grace to die before the Vancouver Games even opened, is sad, unseemly and arguably a squandering of the enormous goodwill that was until this the chief legacy of the Olympics and its CEO both.

Mr. Furlong is immersed in a controversy almost entirely of his own making, because of something he himself said in an e-mail written almost a year before 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed.

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That e-mail, and others, were produced to CBC's the fifth estate and reporter Bob McKeown in response to a freedom of information request that was part of the show's investigation into Mr. Kumaritashvili's death. The resulting program will air this Friday.

But back in March, 2009, VANOC was copied on a letter from International Luge Federation (FIL) president Josef Fendt, who was alarmed by the unprecedented high speeds athletes were attaining at the Whistler sliding centre.

In his March 24 e-mail to senior officials, among them VANOC's top lawyer, Mr. Furlong pointed out that "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."

Then he added the prescient sentences upon which he is now so uncomfortably hoisted: "An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing. That said, I'm not sure where the exit sign or way out is on this.

"Our legal guys should review at least."

The note had the unmistakable flavour of arse-covering, which is not to diminish the hard truth that track safety was the primary responsibility of FIL and the organization that governs bobsleigh and skeleton (the International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing, FIBT), the other tenant of the site whose athletes competed there.

It was these federations, especially their so-called technical delegates, who really called the shots, who knew what facilities were right for their sports. The associations were consulted all the way along, as is the norm, and their joint recommendation about which designer should be hired was followed.

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According to an e-mail to Mr. Furlong from VANOC's managing director of sport, Tim Gayda, as far back as 2006, faced with differing opinions about proposed modifications to the track, VANOC officials were even "lectured not to seek out" changes, but rather to sit tight and not meddle while the experts, FIL and FIBT, worked it out.

In February, 2009, the two federations held World Cup races at Whistler, their secondary purpose to evaluate the track's state of readiness.

After that, the FIL boss, Mr. Fendt, wrote the track designer, with a copy to VANOC, saying he was surprised that speeds of 154 kilometres an hour had been reached, calling it a design mistake, and warning that "overstepping this limit would be an absolute unreasonable demand for the athletes."

The designer replied, according to the B.C. coroner, predicting it was possible the track could yield even higher speeds, but without the risk of a turnover; VANOC was also copied on that.

Games' officials, in other words, yielded to those with expertise and experience. However, as Mr. Gayda pointed out in reference to the hiring of the track designer, although it has broader application, "It is our decision to make, since it is our venue ..."

Now, Mr. Kumaritashvili's death received full-court-press media coverage, and some of it was decidedly unfair, particularly the suggestion in British papers that Canada had upped the track speeds to make it more difficult for those who didn't train there, thus giving an edge to the Canadians for whom Whistler was home field.

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But what it seems wasn't unfair was the question of whether the track really was too fast, and all the assurances at the time from Mr. Furlong and VANOC were to the effect that this terrible accident was nothing they had imagined in their worst nightmares.

In fact, they had.

Mr. Furlong's protestations now that VANOC was warned only that the track was fast, not dangerous, are feeble. And the "offensive media strategy" this week, which saw Mr. Furlong and VANOC communications boss Renee Smith-Valade pre-emptively leak the CBC documents to The Globe and Mail and CTV - the former a Games' sponsor, the latter the official broadcaster - in advance of the fifth estate broadcast ostensibly to give "a more balanced view in the public eye and protect VANOC's reputation," is foul.

Mr. Furlong was right about just about everything in that critical four-line e-mail: An athlete was killed on a track that in FIL's view was "too fast," the case can be made that VANOC was warned and did nothing, and there's still no damn exit sign.

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