Some two dozen crashes later, blame for too-fast Whistler track still pinned on dead driver

By Jim Litke, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Track designer: No need for a second one

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — They lowered the start line, shaved the ice in some corners, and threw up safety barriers in the middle of the night.

It took a singular tragedy and nearly two weeks for the people in charge of the gleaming $105 million Whistler Sliding Center track to finally get it right. They insisted it was safe all along, even while their actions made a mockery of their words. It makes you wonder if they’ll ever learn the lesson, let alone by the time the next Winter Games rolls around.

Asked whether the Whistler track was too fast, the veteran designer who drew it up told The Associated Press from Germany on Tuesday: “It is fast. As I have said before: If fast means dangerous, then, yes.”

Ugo Gurgel, whose half-dozen designs include the courses for the last two Winter Games at Turin and Salt Lake City, said safety was always his top priority. Considering what happened here, you don’t know whether to be relieved or worried that the plans for the 2014 Sochi Games are already on the drawing board in his office.

“It will not have the same speed,” Gurgel insisted.

But how can we be sure they’ve learned their lesson when they won’t admit there’s a lesson to be learned?

“In racing, not everything is foreseeable,” Gurgel said.

Nor apparently open for discussion.

Laurenz Kosichek, the architect charged with turning Gurgel’s vision into reality, has been silent since a young Georgian luger was killed during a training run hours before the Olympic torch was lit. There have been more than two dozen crashes by lugers and bobsledders since.

Kosichek, it seems, is barred from even discussing the track because of a confidentiality agreement with the Vancouver Organizing Committee.

“We were given the designs and we implemented those,” Heena Chavda, a spokeswoman at his Vancouver-based firm, Stantec, said later Tuesday.

“Ugo has had such great success designing, the bobsled and luge federations were brought into the discussions and had a hand throughout. It was done with all the best intentions from the stakeholders on down,” she added. “We were all shocked and saddened by what happened at the onset of the games.”

Nodar Kumaritashvili flew off the sledding track coming out of turn 16 at nearly 90 mph. After an investigation by local authorities, the International Luge Federation blamed pilot error for the crash. Even while conceding he knew little about luge, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili said something was wrong when a kid who couldn’t defend himself was the only one held responsible for the sins of so many others.

“One thing I know for sure,” Saakashvili said with flawless logic, “is that no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death.”

The FIL wouldn’t concede even that simple truth. The people in charge ordered a makeshift retaining wall built at the exit of the final turn overnight and lowered the start line for the men’s luge competition the next day.

Apparently, they also lawyered up in a hurry, saying the changes were made not to make the track safer, but to help the athletes deal “with the emotional component … of this tragic event.”

More bruises than bruised feelings have been collecting since. The best racers have complained the track has become too slow, shifting the advantage from the teams with the best drivers to those who can generate the most powerful push at the start. Their not-so-skilled counterparts have said little, adhering to the sporting world’s code of machismo. Afraid of losing face, they’ve been absorbing their lumps largely in silence.

But those crashes spoke volumes. FIL ordered track workers to shave the ice down in several spots, mostly to make the corners easier to negotiate. Smoothing that icy surface also soothed plenty of fears ahead of the women’s bobsled competition.

After watching several of the sleds driven by their male counterparts get sideways and upside down, the women got through Tuesday night’s opening two rounds with plenty of scratches, but not even one crash. Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse drove Canada-1 into the lead, setting track records both times down.

American Erin Pac admitted days ago she didn’t feel safe on the ice, yet found a way to pilot USA-2 to a close second ahead of Wednesday’s final. Shauna Rohbock, the USA-1 driver and 2006 silver medalist, was the most vocal critic among the women. She wound up sixth after calling the track “stupid fast” between weekend practice sessions.

After all the modifications, Gurgel, the track designer, was asked what lessons could be learned.

“Each accident is one too many,” he said. “Therefore, one has to draw conclusions once all the facts are known.”

But he knew this much already.

“As a matter of principle one would not repeat that type of track. We have a fast track now,” Gurgel said. “There is no need for a second one.”


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at) AP writer Verena Schmitt in Berlin contributed to this story.

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