Luge track safety questioned before Olympic death
Memos include warnings 'someone could get badly hurt'
Eleven months before Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed on a practice run at the 2010 Games, officials with the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee discussed the possibility of an athlete getting "badly injured or worse."
The scenario was discussed in emails the CBC obtained through British Columbia’s Access to Information Act.
The email thread was written after VANOC, the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee, received a copy of a letter from the International Luge Federation (FIL) in March of 2009. FIL had sent the letter to the track's designer, expressing concern about the speeds on the track.
Tim Gayda, managing director of sport for VANOC, begins the thread, writing: "There is nothing to do on our side but it does put in writing concern about the speeds of the track if there was ever an incident."
But VANOC CEO John Furlong had a very different take on the FIL letter.
"[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."
Furlong’s email is in stark contrast to his public comments about how little concerned VANOC was about the possibility of a bad accident on the luge track.
"It’s not something I prepared for, or ever thought I would have to be prepared for," he is widely quoted as saying after Kumaritashvili’s death.
Furlong went further in an interview with CBC News on Monday.
"We were in this exercise of completing our responsibilities with respect to this track," Furlong told CBC News on Monday. "When I saw this, and these guys are making this comment about the track being faster than they wanted, 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 that we do. You have to keep in mind that VANOC is not [an] expert in these areas. We're at the, sort of, disposal of the sports and officials that do this all the time, so our job is to keep pressing them."
Concerns outlined in emails
And in his book about the Vancouver Olympics, which goes on sale Feb 11, Furlong writes: "Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine the death of an athlete on Opening Day."
In the emails obtained by the CBC, Furlong’s concern grows: "I’m not sure where the exit sign or way out is on this. Our legal guys should review at least."
The documents obtained by the CBC also show FIL had safety concerns with the track even before the concrete was poured.
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 600-900mm (2-3 feet) in the last third of six high profile curves …"
The lip, usually made of wood and running horizontally along the top of the concrete track, juts out about 46 centimetres.
FIL wanted to make this modification in six high-profile curves, including curves 15 and 16, where Kumaritashvili’s troubles began on his fatal practice run on Feb. 12, 2010.
Designer agreed to proposed changes
After his death, a FIL investigation of the accident determined that Kumaritashvili "hung onto the curve (15) too long … and did enter curve 16 late as a result".
FIL's report makes no mention of why Kumaritashvili hung on to curve 15 too long.
According to documents obtained by the CBC, the track designer said the changes sought by FIL "would result in a safer track for luge athletes as they will be able to see the end of the corner and adjust their drive line accordingly".
But it was in curve 16, the last curve of the track that "… he most likely lost control of the sled as it shot up towards to the roof of the curve," according the official FIL investigation.
In an email with the CBC in November, FIL's secretary general, Svein Romstad, said the point of lowering the roofs was "so that if an athlete was to hit them it would better lead the athlete back on line."
However Kumaritashvili never hit the lip, or the roof as it is referred to in the FIL report.
Despite repeated requests, both FIL and VANOC have refused to say whether any of the changes FIL sought to make to the track safer were done.
Multiple sources have told CBC that some of this work was done, but only in two curves, not six. The lip on curve 15 was lowered but only by 220 mm, not the 600-900 mm FIL wanted. Nothing was done to the end of curve 16.
The documents also show that the other users of the Whistler track, the international bobsleigh and tobogganing federation (FIBT), opposed FIL's proposed changes.
A VANOC brief dated May 7, 2006 says "in a face to face with the FIBT in Jan 06 VANOC was lectured not to seek out these changes …," and that "the FIBT stated there would be no changes to the corners in Whistler."
Bob Storey, president of FIBT until last month, said no one from the organization lectured anyone from VANOC. As for opposing the changes FIL wanted, he said, differences of opinion are commonplace.
"It’s an exchange of views that happens all the time," Storey said. "It happens in ski hills, it happens to everyone else. One federation says this, another federation says that. They go back and hammer it out. It’s part of a process".
But the process was frustrating VANOC.
Fourteen months after FIL proposed their changes, Gayda of VANOC emailed the International Olympic Committee about the status of the proposed changes. It read in part, "there appears to be a stalemate in the process with no clear end in sight."