Luge track safety defended by VANOC

The head of the Vancouver Olympics committee is defending steps taken to ensure the Whistler luge track was safe, saying an internal email he sent about safety concerns was due diligence.
Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia competes during luge training ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, B.C., on Feb. 10, 2010. Kumaritashvili was killed after crashing during a training run Feb. 12. ((Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters))

The head of the Vancouver Olympics committee is defending steps taken to ensure the Whistler luge track was safe, saying an internal email he sent about safety concerns was due diligence.

John Furlong told CBC News Monday that when he wrote an email outlining his concerns in 2009, it was to make sure organizers were doing everything possible to make sure the track was safe.

"My concern was, 'Are we doing everything we need to do?' and when I spoke with our team, spoke with the sport, spoke with everybody involved, the feeling was we were doing exactly what our responsibilities demanded we do," Furlong said.

Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died during a training run on the day of the opening ceremonies for the Olympics. The 21-year-old lost control of his sled at an estimated 145 km/h, flew off the track and slammed into a metal pillar.

An inquiry found that his death was an unforeseeable accident, but internal emails obtained by the CBC through British Columbia's Access to Information Act suggest Olympic organizers knew the track might be dangerous.

VANOC had been copied on a March 2009 memo that the International Luge Federation (FIL) sent to the track's designer. The federation ruled the track was 20 km/h faster than it should have been — a revelation that apparently also worried Furlong, who wrote an internal email to senior staff.

In an email sent after receiving a copy of the letter, Furlong wrote:

"[E]mbedded 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 we were warned and did nothing."

VANOC worked with federations

Furlong said Monday VANOC is not an expert in track building and is at the "disposal of the sports and officials that do that all the time."

He said Vancouver officials worked with the sports to improve the track on an ongoing basis.

"This process continued right up to just before the Olympics started, and then the sports told us the track was ready, it was fine, and it was going to work for the Games," he said.


Federal Minister of State for Sport Gary Lunn agreed that Furlong was doing "additional due diligence."

"VANOC's more than fulfilled their obligations and gave Canada an extraordinary Games," he said.

Earlier Monday, former VANOC vice-president of sport Tim Gayda said the committee looked to the international sliding federations for guidance.

"These are the experts who have been involved with this sport for all their lives in terms of the safety of building tracks," Gayda said.

"Wherever there was crash barricades required, or the height of the lip on each curve — those were all decided by the international federations and we executed their orders," Gayda said.

Gayda said that VANOC worked with the international federations at every step of the process, saying the federations were involved "from the early days of site selection, to the design, to the construction, to the actual homologation, where the first athletes get on the track."

Urged modifications to 6 curves

He said the federations gave VANOC a list of things they needed to alter on the track at every step of the process.

"We lived up to every one of those obligations," he said.

A memo obtained by CBC News, dated Jan. 30, 2006, notes that in March of 2005, the FIL wanted big changes to six curves on the track, specifically, "reducing the height of the track lip 600-900 mm (two to three feet) in the last third of six high profile curves …"

John Furlong, CEO of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee, addresses the media during a news conference in Vancouver in May 2010. ((Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press))

The recommendation included suggested modifications to curves 15 and 16, where Kumaritashvili’s troubles began on his fatal practice run on Feb. 12, 2010.

Gayda said that because the Whistler track was being used by two different sporting federations, all changes had to be approved by both groups.

"For us, the protocol is there needed to be a request made by both federations, they always had to agree on whatever the changes were because obviously, one request could affect the other federation," he said.

"So whatever the requests were, it had to work for bobsleigh, skeleton and luge."

Asked by CBC's Evan Solomon on Monday night to address whether only two out of the six curves mentioned in the email were modified, Furlong said that VANOC wasn't "permitted to simply take recommendations from one federation … because if one federation asked you to make changes, the concern was that those changes, in actual fact, would cause harm or put the other federation off side."

Furlong did not say in the interview whether the sports were able to come together and agree on amendments to the track design. "We needed them to agree on what they were, and our position always was … once they agree and they hand us a list of changes or improvements, we would make them," he said.

When asked whether all the suggested changes were made, Furlong told CBC reporter Bob McKeown the track was signed off piece-by-piece by the international bobsleigh and luge federations.

"I think if you had luge and bobsleigh sitting here, they would say everything they asked us to do, we did."