Debate within bobsled over Olympic track’s safety
The sledders all agree: The Olympic track is fast – the fastest
there is and likely ever will be. Where they differ is just how
furious it is.
The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and more
crashes since at Whistler – including four on Saturday night alone
as bobsled competition began – have opened an emotional debate
Negotiating the course’s 16 icy bends excites many but makes
others anxious. Some teams complain it is dangerous.
The pressure of Olympic competition only ups the ante. So, too,
does the fact that some pilots have scarcely any experience on the
track, the world’s fastest.
The most outspoken pilot has been Shauna Rohbock, the 2006
silver medalist who called the Whistler Sliding Center “stupid
The federation that runs bobsled says its goal was for all
pilots to have at least 40 runs before they compete. Many have, but
some have had fewer than half that.
Czech pilot Jan Vrba, entered in four-man, never drove on
Whistler before the Vancouver Games, and Serbian four-man pilot Vuk
Radjenovic went down just four times, according to FIBT records.
Australian pilot Jeremy Rolleston, who crashed Saturday, made just
eight training runs before the games, federation records show. The
same was true for Liechtenstein’s Michael Klingler, who also
British pilot John Jackson had bloody scrapes underneath both of
his shoulder blades from a high-speed drag along the ice while he
was still stuck inside the overturned chassis of his sled.
“I can’t wear my race jersey,” Jackson said, “because my back
Whistler is also sharpening debate among bobsledders about what
constitutes a good track. Some feel the other 15 artificial tracks
around the world include some that are too easy, favoring pilots
with fast push-starts and fast sleds but not necessarily the best
driving technique. To many, Whistler is welcome because it puts a
premium on driver skills.
They also add that the course must be tough if the Olympics is
to be the pinnacle of the sport.
“You hear a lot of horror stories about this track, but once
you go down, it’s like, whew! Yeah, it is fast and it is difficult,
but it’s not like terrifying,” Belgium driver Elfje Willemsen
said. Before this week, she had ridden this track just 19 times,
according to federation records.
“You are hanging out at the top ready to vomit because this is
such an intense track,” USA-3 driver Bree Schaaf said. “But
that’s just going to make for an exciting games. … It’s going to
be an incredible race.”
Romania driver Carmen Radenovic added: “It’s my favorite track.
I don’t know. I feel good, I don’t know why. I was in love with
this track from first time.”
Asked if she liked the speed, she gushed, her voice rising with
every word: “Yes. Yes! Yes! I like very much.”
Some teams voiced concerns about safety at a meeting Friday with
race officials. The head of the Swiss team, Markus Wasser, said in
an interview that high speeds and gravitational forces at the
bottom of the track give pilots no time to correct driving
The team withdrew driver Daniel Schmid for what it called
“safety reasons” after two crashes in training. Swiss gold medal
favorite Beat Hefti also withdrew from two-man with a concussion
following a crash on Wednesday.
For luge, speeds were slowed when the start was moved lower down
the track after Kumarishtavili’s death on Feb. 12.
IOC president Jacques Rogge, in an interview with The Associated
Press, promised Saturday to do “everything in my power” to
prevent a repeat of the crash and said the International Olympic
Committee will work with the luge federation to “take all the
steps that might be needed” to avoid another tragedy at future
“We are risk-conscious, definitely,” he said.
In Friday’s bobsled meeting, “there was lots of coaches talking
about how dangerous this track is, we’ve got to re-cut it, we’ve
got to slow it down,” said Tom De-La-Hunty, who competed in
bobsled for Britain at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and now coaches
the Netherlands team.
“If it’s too fast, go home. Go and get married and have some
children,” he said. “So much of this is driven by the coaches,
the individual coaches bleating, whining and moaning at meetings
and instilling this fear in their own athletes.”
“You don’t have to participate,” British pilot Paula Walker
said. “It’s the Olympic Games, not a bob school.”
Rohbock said Friday night, when freezing temperatures helped
make the ice especially hard and fast, that speeds in the final
turns push the boundaries of what she thought she could handle.
“I think they went a little overboard on this track,” she
said. “Your brain almost can’t catch up with what your hands need
to do. I think at some point it’s going to exceed that and that’s
when problems will happen.”
In early 2008, Rohbock was one of several top drivers invited by
officials to test-drive the track. Even then, she said, she
believed problems could arise.
“We voiced that concern, and they just thought it would be
OK,” Rohbock said. “But I think now they are realizing that it’s
not going to be OK.”
It was not clear to whom Rohbock relayed her concerns. The
federation met regularly with pilots during testing to hear their
feedback about the track, federation spokesman Don Krone said.
“We don’t necessarily listen to the chatter that’s out there –
largely it has to be substantiated by the federations,” said Tim
Gayda, vice president of sport for the Vancouver organizing
He said the federation had not made a formal request for any
changes to the track, but “we’ll do whatever they ask of us.”
After more training Saturday, Rohbock tempered her criticism,
saying: “For the most part, I feel safe – as long as I don’t
Asked in an interview about Rohbock’s comments, federation
president Bob Storey said: “She always has something to say.
“She said the same thing about other tracks …. It’s in her
nature,” he said. “In general, we’re hearing from our athletes
that it’s a great track, a fair track – it’s an Olympic
While all the other drivers agree the track is super-quick, none
has been as outspoken as Rohbock.
The AP spoke to 13 other women pilots – out of a total field of
21 – after the first round of official training Saturday. Only one,
American Erin Pac, said she didn’t feel safe on the ice.
But Pac also said that while the course is “definitely a
challenge,” speed is “part of the sport.” She said she had no
reservations about competing on the track.
“I have not made it through the 50-50 once yet clean,” said
Pac, referring to the area around Curve 13 that picked up the dicey
moniker last year after a number of men’s sleds crashed around that
“Every time it’s a huge struggle for me,” she went on. “The
track has been different every time we’ve come here, and you just
have to relearn how to get through there and I clearly have not
learned it yet.”
Canada-1 pilot Kaillie Humphries said slider mistakes on the
course will “bite you in the butt for sure.”
“But I could list off any track that has at least one or two
corners that would do the exact same thing to you,” she said. “I
think it’s no different than any other track. It’s just the speed
is something new.”
Three German pilots did not speak to AP but through a team
spokeswoman said they had no concerns about the track.
One idea bobsled officials contemplated to slow sleds in
competition was using coarse sandpaper to scuff the runners of the
sleds. Rohbock voiced support for such a measure, but Krone said
Saturday the idea was dropped after other teams showed little
appetite for it. Using coarse paper would have been a telltale
indication that officials and teams are concerned about excessive
Instead, fine-grain paper will be used – as it is in other races
to make sure teams haven’t coated their runners with substances
that would make them run faster and give them an unfair
Rohbock said Saturday that all the talk about the track is
“You run the track through your head a million times. I didn’t
go to bed till 3:30 and it was the worst night of sleep,” she
said. “Even for the brakemen, to have them have horrible nights,
their minds are running as well now that the drivers are just going
crazy because they’re thinking about every curve.”
As she spoke, a Russian sled crashed, and scraped and bumped to
the end of the track.
“Uh-oh” Rohbuck said.
The Russians were unhurt.
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds, Anne M. Peterson, Tom Withers
and Stephen Wilson and AP National Writer David Crary contributed
to this report.