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Sliding track speeds concerned a year before luge death

E-mails indicate the luge federation expressed concerns to VANOC

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Despite public assurances that the Whistler Sliding Centre track was safe for the Games, members of the Vancouver Organizing Committee were expressing their own concerns in private.

According to emails that were collected during the B.C. Coroner's Service investigation, both Tim Gayda, managing director of sport for VANOC, and John Furlong, VANOC's president and CEO, expressed concerns about track speeds that were almost 20 km/h higher than projected during the design and construction.

Those emails, obtained by CBC this week through an Access to Information Act request, were written in response to a letter from the International Luge Federation (FIL) that expressed concerns about the speeds to VANOC and the track designer.

According to the CBC, Gayda wrote, "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."

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." Furlong asked VANOC lawyers to look at potential legal issues surrounding the safety of the track.

Furlong's public comments seem to contradict other statements he has made regarding the safety of the track, before and after the death of 21-year-old Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili on the eve of the Games. On several occasions after the incident, including his new book Patriot Hearts, Furlong said the death came as a surprise.

In Patriot Hearts Furlong wrote: "In the build-up to the Games we had developed protocols for just about every crisis scenario you could think of. We had confronted make-believe plane crashes, riots, major injuries, mustard gas-you name it and we had prepared for it. But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine the death of an athlete on opening day."

While VANOC was in charge of overseeing the Games, the construction and safety of the track relied on the expertise of FIL and FIBT (the international sanctioning body for skeleton and bobsleigh) guiding the construction. The companies involved in design and construction of the track also had a long track record in the sport, and according to the coroner's investigation they were also at a loss to explain why top speeds were almost 20 km/h than they forecast at 154 km/h, well outside the usual margin of error.

However, while the track was the fastest in the world - and crashes were common in training leading up to the test World Cup events - most international organizations still considered it safe. No athletes or equipment was thrown clear of the track in any of these crashes, and some changes were made to ice profiles that reduced the number of crashes significantly.

The FIL did request six additional small changes to the track in the letter that Gayda and Furlong commented on, only some of which were made. A few changes were also made before the start of this season to give athletes more control heading into a section of track nicknamed "50-50."

On Monday, Furlong told CTV that their lawyers felt there were no issues, and that they deferred all questions of safety to FIL when it came to approving the track. In that capacity VANOC has said before that the sanctioning bodies were directing VANOC from the start, and not the other way around. VANOC's job was to deliver a sliding track that met the specifications set by FIL and FIBT.

"They are the experts in these fields," Craig Lehto, manager of the sliding centre during the Games, told the Toronto Star on Monday.

 

 

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