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Luge officials were warned of Olympic track's hazards

WHISTLER, British Columbia — The blame game on what caused the death of a young slider from the Republic of Georgia escalated Thursday when the head of the country's Olympic committee placed responsibility for the accident on the organizations that built the world's fastest track.

"I exclude the possibility that Nodar (Kumaritashvili) was not experienced enough," president Giorgi Natsvlishlili said in a televised interview. "From my point of view, the track was at fault."

Kumaritashvili, 21 and in his second season, was killed within sight of the finish line as he was ejected from the track at nearly 90 mph during the final training run.

Now, one week after his death, the questions far outnumber the answers.

Officials from both FIL (the international luge federation) and the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee have closed ranks, insisting the track is safe. They blame pilot error. The top athletes have largely stayed on message, expressing their sadness and condolences — and little more.

But the anger over the track conditions and the limited training schedule imposed by VANOC is mounting. And there remains one question that haunts this controversial chute of concrete and ice: Did the desire for speed outweigh the need for safety?

How much risk is too much?

The concerns over the safety of the track began before Kumaritashvili's death. Kumaritashvili's father, the head of Georgia's luge federation, said his son expressed fears in a phone call just before he died.

And a slider from Venezuela said he sent warning letters to luge officials, warning of the dangers, after he crashed in training last November and failed to qualify for his third Olympics.

Statistics provided by the track show that in the 30,477 runs of the luge, bobsled and skeleton that occurred prior to the Olympics, there were 340 instances of rollovers that required medical attention.

Is one percent an acceptable level of risk?

The luge competition has ended but the crashes continue. During a Wednesday night training session from the top of the track, 11 bobsleds careened out of control, including one driven by Switzerland's Beat Hefti, the top-ranked two-man driver in the world.

Since higher walls were erected in the area of the crash and the start lines were lowered to ratchet down the speeds on the world's fastest track, FIL and VANOC have gone silent. Requests to speak with officials have been rejected or ignored.

Natalie Geisenberger of Germany, the women's silver medalist, gave voice to what many people are wondering: "They had to do that one year earlier ... not when (someone) is dead. It's too late."

The tragedy also raises questions about what happens after the Olympics.

"Where do I train my athletes in the future? How do I bring my young athletes here without not putting one foot into jail?" Canadian coach Wolfgang Staudinger told the television network CTV. "The FIL has to respond in this matter. ... They approved it."

Certainly, there were warning signs as the track went from concept to reality.

The building and certification of an Olympic track follows a fairly standard procedure.

Once a host city is awarded the Olympics and site is selected for the venue, the process of building a single refrigerated track for luge, bobsled and skeleton begins.

A designer is hired. In the case of six Olympics, that man has been Udo Gurgel, an engineer based in Frankfort, whose work must be approved by the two sports federations and members of the Olympic organizing committee. A local contractor translates Gurgel's computer-generated design into a mile-long cement chute.

Construction of the $105 million Whistler track took two years. VANOC announced that each curve and bank was within one to three millimeters of Gurgel's blueprints.

Testing came in March 2008 by elite athletes of all three disciplines during a certification process called homologation. During more than 200 runs, sliders reached speeds in the low 90s. Tony Bensoof, America's most decorated singles slider, called navigating the track, "a handful."

Canada's Jeff Christie, a 2006 Olympian, proclaimed it, "a challenging and fast track which is going to test our skills mentally, physically and technologically. Not just for Canada's athletes, but for the world's best athletes."

If "dangerous" was spoken, it wasn't for the public record.

In approving the track, Walter Plaikner, chairman of the FIL technical committee and Italy's head coach, announced, "There is almost nothing to change."

The sliding center's Web site touted the course as "vivid, violent and rough," which fueled the legend of the world's fastest track.

Final inspection by the FIL occurred over two days in September 2008. Less than two months later, international training sessions began and sliders started crashing, including world champion Felix Loch, who won the gold medal this week. Speeds reached 92.58 mph.

Although the FIL said the "crash rate" of three percent during testing was within tolerance for a new track, the blistering speeds gave its president, Josef Fendt, pause.

"We've always assumed that, on principle, top speeds of (83.3 mph or 84.5 mph) were possible," he said in a statement. "But we didn't reckon with such a leap."

Fendt ordered new tracks to be constructed with lower speeds, but did nothing to alter the Whistler configuration.At the first World Cup competition last February, speeds inched upward still.

"It is the first time that we've had athletes reaching speeds up to (89.48 mph) per hour in training," said Plaikner. "With proper race preparation we should be up to (93.2 mph), which is about as fast as we can go in our sport."

Loch made that pronouncement moot, when he set the track record at 95.6 mph on his second run.

Although crashes continued, none of them exposed the flaw that sent Kumaritashvili to his death.

"Tracks are supposed to be designed to keep athletes inside, where a crash can be controlled, where it's safer," said John Morgan, a network analyst and former bobsledder. "That obviously didn't happen here. Why?"

And no one apparently questioned why unprotected roof support posts were so close to the track and at the end of a stretch where the highest speeds occur. Kumaritashvili's head hit one of those posts when he was ejected from the track.

"That's like planting a tree in the middle of a ski slope," said Andrew Tudor, president of Meridian One, a suburban Chicago laboratory that performs accident reconstruction and provides expert testimony in court. "They built a track so he could kill himself and then they're saying it's his fault. I'd take this case in a heartbeat."

Tudor said the same principals used in designing amusement park rides should apply to sliding tracks.

"If you want to push the speed envelope, you have an obligation to think about what could go wrong," he said. "Flying out of the track when you're going that fast on a hairpin turn is a foreseeable occurrence. We've advanced the field of sports safety that we can catch him and redirect his path back into the course.

"If you can put old tires up around a go-cart track, why can't you do something for someone going much faster?"

The increase in track speeds have not come in a vacuum. Wind tunnels are used to make more aerodynamic sleds and speed suits. New steel technology puts more zip in runners. And athletes train year round.

FIL has demanded improvements before. In the case of the newest track just outside Moscow, certification last year was contingent upon the extension of safety walls. The track that will be used in Sochi, Russia, at the next Winter Games in 2014 hasn't been built.

In the last decade, three of the newest luge tracks have been roundly criticized for being unsafe: Lake Placid, N.Y., Cesana, Italy, and, now Whistler. One German track has been altered to reflect technological advances and another is scheduled for modification.

At the 2000 Goodwill Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., three of the world's top-ranked luge sliders went home rather than compete on a new $24 million track they considered unsafe. The state of New York, which pays for its operation, lowered the start house. Since that time, it has played host to 11 World Cup luge events and the 2009 World Championships for all three disciplines.

In February 2005, a year before the Turin Olympics, organizers aborted a test event at that new track after 14 athletes crashed and nine of them required hospitalization.

In a scene reminiscent of the Whistler accident, international federation officials responded by calling the track "technically demanding," and the technical director of the Italian luge team, Marco Andreata, told reporters the crashes were the result of "mistakes by second-rank athletes," from nations such as Brazil, the Virgin Islands, Romania and Latvia.

But Turin organizers backed down, agreeing to tame curves 16, 17 and 18 near the bottom of their track, where speeds were the highest.

The need to be the fastest is nothing new and is not limited to luge. Twenty men were injured at the 1963 bobsled world championships at the new track at Igls, Austria. Injuries ranged from concussions and teeth ripped to the gum line to three leg fractures and dislocations. During one crash, a Canadian driver's throat was slashed ear to ear. (The winning driver, Italy's Sergio Zardini, was decapitated three years later in Lake Placid when his sled crushed him against the top of a curve known as Zig-Zag).

On the same track, two weeks before luge was introduced in the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Polish-born British racer Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski was killed in a training run.

Until last week, his death was the last in the sport.

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