The Whistler Sliding Centre got off to a bumpy start three weeks ago at the first of two World Cup events held to test the facility in advance of the 2010 Games, with bobsleigh teams and skeleton athletes crashing hard in training. One corner, Turn 13, even earned the nickname "50/50," implying that you had about a 50 per cent chance of flipping.
Track crews got to work reshaping the track, shaving down the ice in some areas and adding it in others, and by the time the events were underway and the athletes had a few practice runs to get used to it the track was both safe and fast. The skeleton athletes still got bumped around, which is par for the sport, and only one sled overturned in the two-man and four-man bobsled races.
By the time the luge events took place last weekend the course was perfect, allowing Germany's Felix Loch to set a new speed record of 153.937 km/h.
All of the events were hugely popular, with both bobsleigh and luge events selling out. If the skeleton event took place on the weekend instead of Thursday it likely would have sold out as well, but almost 2,500 of 3,000 skeleton tickets were sold all the same.
The course was also put through the paces, with 2,818 official runs in the past four weeks. While ice quality can vary (the four-man bobsleighs can weigh more than 600 kg and can chew up the ice surface), the ice was restored enough between the four-man bobsleigh races and the luge events two weeks later to allow Loch to set a new speed record.
"My technical delegate told me this week that the Games could start tomorrow and the track would be ready," said Josef Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation. (FIL).
"This is a very unique track in the world because of the speed, and we are so happy to have it," he said, prior to Saturday's luge World Cup. "It is the first time we've had athletes reaching speeds up to 144 km/h in training. With proper race preparation we should be up to 150 km/h, which is about as fast as we can go in our sport."
It was a huge effort to host two World Cup sliding events. The WSC employed over 460 officials, track crew and volunteers during the events, according to WSC director Craig Lehto.
As for the track itself, Lehto says it held up better than expected.
"When you look at the second run times - not so much for four-man, but in other sports - sometimes the second heats were faster than the first," he said. "Luge was much faster in the second heats, which is where the track record was set. Which is good, you want a track that's very fair to the competitive field. When you're close to the first heats on your second heat you know you've done a good job hosting the track."
No major changes to the track are planned, which is part of the reason for the World Cup test events, although Lehto expects some minor upgrades around the facility between now and the Games.
The Whistler Sliding Centre is also actively trying to build local clubs in luge, bobsleigh and skeleton, and after the Games there will likely be an adventure tourism aspect to the track to help cover operating costs. Those programs were given a boost by extensive media coverage of the sliding events, and praise as the fastest, most technical course in the world.
"Media interest for World Cups was phenomenal, there were more media here for the bobsleigh than I experienced at Salt Lake City (Games in 2002). It was an intense period for the whole area, and it will help a tonne for what we're trying to achieve in the future."
The events brought close to 400 athletes to Whistler, as well as coaches, technicians, and other support staff. More than 200 media were accredited for both events. The audience in Europe, where the races were broadcast, likely exceeded 10 million viewers.
The track will remain open until March 22 for Canadian team training camps for all three sliding sports, in order to give Canadians a home field advantage in 2010. People can watch training from Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Schedules will be posted online by www.whistlerslidingcentre.com.