Luge death raises questions, concerns about ‘challenging’ sliding course
BY JASON BOTCHFORD, CANWEST OLYMPIC TEAM; CANWEST NEWS SERVICEFEBRUARY 13, 2010
The design firm commissioned to build the Whistler Sliding Centre vowed to create the “most challenging” course ever made.
It now promises to be the last of its kind.
The International Olympic Committee is investigating how the course, originally designed for speeds of 137 km/h, allowed athletes to set world records of more than 153 km/h. Those speeds had athletes and officials questioning course safety leading up to the Games and Friday’s death of a Georgian luger.
“The track is too fast,” Joseph Fendt, president of the International Luge Federation, told London’s Daily Telegraph. “We had planned it to be a maximum of 137 km/h, but it is about 20 km/h faster. We think this is a planning mistake.”
Nikoloz Rurua, Georgian Minister of Culture and Sport, suggested that the track should remain closed until the IOC probe is completed.
“I know that particular venue has been shut down. Investigation is under way because there were several accidents [at] that spot, so of course in order to prevent such devastating events in the future it should be very, very thoroughly studied,” Rurua said in news conference Friday. “I hope the promise that we got from officials will be carried through.”
When the course was proposed in 2005, Lorenz Kosichek, project manager for the design firm Stantec, said: “It will be the most challenging track in the world.”
Reached Friday after the death of luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili, Kosichek said it was “too soon” to address serious safety concerns that were expressed long before the accident. “I’m not going to answer any questions on the phone right now. It’s too soon to have any discussions about this.”
German engineer Udo Gurgel designed the track and all of the tracks for the 1998 Nagano, 2002 Salt Lake and 2006 Turin Olympic Games.
Stantec Architecture Ltd.'s Vancouver office was hired to put into practice Gurgel’s mathematical design.
The course was planned for speeds of 137 km/h. But this week, a racer hit 154 km/h.
The accident occurred near the bottom of the course. It was not the most dangerous area, but it was near the spot where athletes were approaching top speeds. Kumaritashvili was going an estimated 144.3 km/h. He careened off the course and hit an unpadded support beam.
In a sport that pushes athletes to be faster, and more dangerous, there were more than a few who expressed concern that a tipping point had been reached because of the speed of the Whistler course.
After she nearly lost control Thursday, Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg told reporters: “I think they are pushing it a little too much. To what extent are we just little lemmings that they just throw down a track and we’re crash-test dummies? I mean, this is our lives.”
Before Kumaritashvili’s fatal crash, Italy’s Armin Zoeggeler, the defending Olympic champion, lost control in the first run Friday. It didn’t appear he was injured. But on Thursday, Violeta Stramaturaru of Romania was knocked unconscious and airlifted to a nearby medical facility because of a crash.
After learning that Kumaritashvili had died, the chairman of the International Luge Federation was asked if the men’s luge event should be cancelled or postponed because of safety concerns. “I don’t know what we are going to do. This is very heavy,” said Josef Benz, a Swiss bobsledder who competed in two Winter Olympics and won one gold.
The course features dangerous elements, including an imposing 152-metre drop. The original plan called for 149 metres. It’s the longest in the world and the drop is equivalent to 48 storeys. The 1,450-metre course has 16 turns.
In training this week, Manuel Pfister set a speed record when he hit 154 km/h. That topped the 153.98 km/h record set at the same course last year.
Officials had already told the planners of the 2014 Sochi Games that the speeds at Whistler were unacceptable.
In an interview with NBC, American luger Tony Benshoof said: “When I first got on this track, I thought that somebody was going to kill themselves.”
One of the corners is ominously dubbed 50/50 because the first athletes who tested the course thought their chances of making it safely through the corner were about the same as a coin flip.
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