Controversial luge track benefits Canadians

Accusations and controversy still linger over Whistler’s Olympic sliding track, but Canadian athletes continue to train there and say it has helped improve their results this season.

VANCOUVER — Accusations and controversy still linger over Whistler’s Olympic sliding track, but Canadian athletes continue to train there and say it has helped improve their results this season.

“Someone did lose their life there,” veteran slider Jeff Christie said in recent interview from a World Cup luge event in Russia. “I do think because of that one incident the track has got a bit of a reputation on the very negative side.

“I do think it’s a safe track. I’ve done this for 16 years. There are other tracks I would fear more and be a lot more respectful to.”

There hasn’t been a luge competition in Whistler since the Vancouver Olympics, where Georgia’s Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training crash just hours before the opening ceremony.

But Christie says training on one of the most demanding tracks in the world has benefited the Canadian team. Calgary’s Alex Gough became the first Canadian to capture a medal at the world championships when she finished third.

“That’s what that track brings us,” said Christie. “It means so much to our sport in developing athletes and prepare us to go to Europe.

“If I slide in Calgary for three weeks before the season, then come to Europe, I’m a little bit behind the 8-ball. When I go to Whistler for two weeks and slide there, I have no doubt in my mind I can go to any track in the world and be right there.”

Nearly a year after Kumaritashvili’s death, however, the track remains controversial.

Earlier this week, internal emails revealed that John Furlong, the head of the Vancouver organizing committee, raised concerns almost a year earlier that athletes could be injured “or worse” on the Whistler track.

Furlong said Monday it was up to the International Luge Federation (FIL) and the International Bobsled and Skeleton Federation to recommend changes.

They didn’t, so nothing was done.

The 21-year-old Kumaritashvili was travelling at speeds of more than 144 kilometres an hour when he lost control of his sled going into Turn 16. He flew off the track and slammed into a metal post.

The accident has resulted in FIL calling for tougher safety standards at tracks. There also is a push for rules that would force athletes to attend mandatory training runs on Olympic courses.

“The best thing that can come out of the accident is all the tracks become safer for all sliding sports for all competitors,” said Walter Corey, high-performance director for the Canadian Luge Association.

By the end of the summer an independent safety audit is expected to be completed at the Whistler Sliding Centre. The audit, recommended by a B.C. coroner’s report, could ask for design changes.

Christie, a 28-year-old native of Calgary who finished 14th at the Olympics, doesn’t think the track needs major changes.

“There’s some stuff they can do profile-wise, like how the curve on the inside is shaped,” he said. “They’ve already done some of that, to just make it a little bit easier and a little more forgiving if you do make a driving error.”

Kumaritashvili, who was ranked 44th in the World Cup standings at the start of the Games, didn’t participate in one of the training weeks leading up to the Olympics.

Some athletes, Christie included, believe the Georgian wasn’t ready to race at Whistler.

“A year ago it happened,” Christie said. “The world was shocked. You didn’t want to say anything about the slider because it wasn’t the right time.

“I feel a year has passed. The sensitivity is still there but you can say yes, in my opinion, he wasn’t quite experienced enough to be sliding at the top of a track that was at that calibre and a track that demonstrates so much technically. He didn’t have near the amount of training runs that everyone else did. He didn’t show up to one that was offered.”

Christie and others have suggested FIL set a minimum number of training runs an athlete must have on a track before competing at an Olympics. Current rules set mandatory training times but don’t force athletes to participate.

While bobsled and skeleton World Cup events were held at Whistler this winter, no luge event has been staged there since the Olympics. FIL plans to return for a World Cup event in 2012 and the world championships in 2013.

“The FIL is committed to the Whistler track and looks forward to its utilization for years to come,” Erika Votz of the FIL said in an email to The Canadian Press.

Both FIL and B.C. coroner Tom Pawlowski conducted investigations into the accident and the international governing body also inspected other tracks.

“There was an inspection by the technical commission of the FIL on every track all over the world to increase the safety of the athletes,” FIL spokesman Wolfgang Harder said in an email to The Canadian Press. “And in result FIL recommended changes.”

Corey said this inspection resulted in $40,000 in improvements being done to the sliding track in Calgary, built for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics.

FIL has taken steps to make sure the track being built for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, will meet tougher safety standards. An independent analysis by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology projected the maximum speed will be around 134 kilometres an hour.

Any rule changes won’t come into affect until two years prior to the Sochi Games.

The immediate impact of Kumaritashvili’s death was to lower the men’s start for the Vancouver Games down to the women’s start. The women were dropped down to the junior start. This was done to reduce speed.

It’s not known if future competitions in Whistler will be held from the top or the lower positions.

FIL asked organizers at the recent world championships in Cesana, Italy, to implement new safety measures, including extending track walls on several curves.

The $104.9-million Whistler Sliding Centre is now operated by Whistler Sport Legacies. The organization hopes to announce in March who will conduct the safety audit, which is expected to be completed by August.

“It’s pretty hard to speculate on what they might come up with,” said Keith Bennett, the chief executive officer for Whistler Sports Legacies. ”If you look at the history of other tracks, some have done major modifications, some have done minor modifications.”

It’s the blistering speed and challenging design of the Whistler track that separates it from the 20 other courses in the world. The 1,700-metre track winds like a concrete snake down Blackcomb Mountain. It has the highest vertical drop of any existing facility.

Luge sleds can reach speeds of 154 kilometres an hour when starting from the top. That’s about 18 kilometres an hour more than the designer’s original calculations.

The track is also unforgiving. It comes at a slider like a tidal wave.

“Some tracks meander for the first two or three curves,” said Christie. “The Whistler track you drop right in and go right away.

“From top to bottom it is very demanding. You have to be present and you have to be on it the whole time. It’s not the speed that is the problem. It’s the fact that if you make a mistake driving at that speed it just compounds itself quicker.”

While Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of Kumaritashvili’s death, the tragedy is still fresh in many minds.

“I think about Nodar and his family on a constant basis, and envision that I will do so for years to come,” Craig Lehto, the sliding centre’s general manager at the time accident said in an email. “As a father of two, I cannot fathom the loss of a child, and my thoughts are often with Nodar’s family, particularly on the one year anniversary of their son’s passing.”

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