E-mails show speed was a concern at Olympic track

E-mails show speed was a concern at Olympic track

Published Feb. 7, 2011 11:30 p.m. ET

Safety of sliders on the track used for the 2010 Olympics was the source of debate for both Vancouver Games and international luge officials for several years, according to e-mails released Monday.

The documents came out less than a week before the one-year anniversary of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili's death. He died Feb. 12, 2010 in a training wreck near the finish of the track in Whistler, British Columbia - just hours before the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Games.

Most of the documents merely reiterate what has been known for some time, that speeds sliders reached at the Whistler Sliding Center exceeded what was originally planned. The written conversations largely surround the International Luge Federation's concerns that speeds would soar at the track planned in Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympics, not just at the Whistler venue.

''Nobody said to us the track was dangerous,'' John Furlong, the man who led the Vancouver organizing committee known as VANOC, said on a conference call Monday night. ''They said the track was fast.''


Furlong said luge officials asked for ''about 30'' changes to the Whistler track, most related to safety issues. All changes were completed before the Olympics, Furlong said.

''We executed our responsibility,'' Furlong said.

Estimates during the track-design process suggested sliders in Whistler likely would not be able to exceed 83 mph. Kumaritashvili was going nearly 90 mph - believed to be the fastest speed of his sliding career - when he lost control, sailed over the track wall and struck a steel pole, dying instantly.

Even at that speed, Kumaritashvili was moving far less quickly than medal contenders did during training for the Vancouver Games.

Furlong wrote in an e-mail on March 24, 2009 that FIL officials were concerned ''that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt.

''An athlete gets badly hurt or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing,'' Furlong continued. ''That said I'm not sure where the exit sign or way out is on this.''

CBC first reported the contents of the e-mails.

Furlong was quoted on the day Kumaritashvili died saying that such an incident was ''not something I am prepared for, or anything I ever thought I would need to prepare for.''

On Monday, given the nature of the e-mails, Furlong tried to clarify that remark.

''I did not think about fault,'' Furlong said. ''I thought only of what our responsibility was to Nodar's family.''

The e-mails and other documents released Monday reveal that discussions about safety at the Whistler track started even before the 2006 Turin Games, which, too, were marred by several frightening luge crashes. VANOC officials have said, and repeated on Monday, that the execution of both the design and construction of the Whistler venue was done in concert with both the international luge, and international bobsled and skeleton federations.

Countless approvals were given at each significant step in the process.

''The responsibility of the safety standards and the profiles and all the pieces ... come from the'' international federations governing the sports, said Craig Lehto, who oversaw operations at the Whistler Sliding Center during the Vancouver Games. ''The (federations) are ultimately the bosses of field of play.''

After Kumaritashvili's death, sliding competitions continued as scheduled at the 2010 Olympics - though with the luge competitors racing on a shortened course in an effort to lower speed.

Most athletes at last year's Games said then, and still say, that the accident was freakish.

''What happened to Nodar was incredibly unforeseen and incredibly tragic,'' Olympic skeleton gold medalist Jon Montgomery of Canada said on a conference call.

Whistler is still scheduled to host a World Cup luge race next season, and the world championships for the sport in 2013. A memorial to commemorate the anniversary of Kumaritashvili's death is scheduled at a World Cup race in Russia on Saturday, and USA Luge athletes are planning a tribute as well.