British Columbia coroner’s office: Independent safety audit needed of Whistler luge track

By Tim Reynolds, AP
Monday, October 4, 2010

British Columbia coroner: Luge audit needed

Nodar Kumaritashvili’s “relative lack of experience” on challenging tracks played a significant role in his death during a training run hours before the start of the Vancouver Olympics, according to a coroner’s report released Monday.

The long-awaited report, issued 235 days after Kumaritashvili crashed, declared the Georgian’s death accidental and revealed that he was killed immediately when his body flew at 90 mph over the track wall and into a metal post near the finish line at the Whistler Sliding Center.

Further investigations into the fatal crash are not scheduled, though the British Columbia Coroners Service recommended “a comprehensive safety audit of the Whistler track” and urged the worldwide governing bodies for luge, bobsled and skeleton to take a hard look at what goes into designing, building and certifying tracks.

“The relative lack of experience Mr. Kumaritashvili had on this challenging track set a backdrop for the incident and was a significant disadvantage, as far as safety was concerned, for the athlete entering the high pressure environment of the Olympic Games,” wrote coroner Tom Pawlowski.

Luge officials had expressed concern over the speeds reached at the Whistler track before the Olympics, saying they were much higher than designers predicted — prompting concerns that they would continue rising in years to come.

Speed was a top concern for teams before the Olympics, especially since many nations felt they did not have enough time to train at the Whistler facility in advance of the games.

More than a dozen athletes crashed in the first two days of luge training alone, including some of the world’s best sliders.

“I think they are pushing it a little too much,” Australia’s Hannah Campbell-Pegg said on Feb. 11 after nearly losing control in training. “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.”

About 12 hours later, Kumaritashvili was dead, the first fatality at a sanctioned luge track in nearly 35 years.

In his report, Pawlowski said a letter written by FIL President Josef Fendt suggested the newly built Whistler track “was not supplied as ordered.” However, Fendt’s letter stopped short of calling on Vancouver Olympics officials to address track speeds for the 2010 Games, Pawlowski said.

Kumaritashvili had taken 26 runs on the track, 16 of them from the top. He crashed four times, including the fatal wreck.

A call placed to international luge officials seeking comment was not immediately returned. A report issued in April by the International Luge Federation said gravitational force overpowered Kumaritashvili and left him unable to avoid the crash, which it also termed accidental.

“It would also appear that the best practices known at the time were followed,” Pawlowski wrote. “However, Mr. Kumaritashvili’s death has proven the Whistler track capable of producing a serious incident, despite all of the safety measures that have been previously considered adequate.”

The FIL has insisted since the crash that Kumaritashvili, a relatively inexperienced slider, was “absolutely qualified” to be at the games.

During the morning of Feb. 12, just hours before the opening ceremony for the Vancouver Games, Kumaritashvili was completing a training run on the 16-turn superspeedway of a track, going faster than ever in his life: 89.4 mph was his final clocked speed.

Kumaritashvili lost control and crashed into the wall entering the final straightaway. His body went airborne, arms and legs flailing over the opposite side of the track, his upper body smashing into an unpadded steel pole as his sled continued skidding down the track. He was officially pronounced dead 59 minutes later.

The pole that Kumaritashvili struck was wrapped in padding the next day, a measure that wouldn’t have mattered, Pawlowski wrote, “given the force of the collision.”

Citing a need to lower top speeds, start ramps for men’s, women’s and doubles luge were lowered for the Olympic races after the death, a move that raised the ire of many sliders but one that FIL insisted upon, citing “an emotional and psychological benefit to the athletes.”

No World Cup luge race is scheduled in Whistler for this coming season. Bobsled and skeleton are to race there this fall in the opener of their World Cup schedule. The FIL plans to race from the original start ramps for both a World Cup luge race in 2011-12 and the 2013 world championships in Whistler.

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