The controversy surrounding the venue follows Friday’s fatal luge accident, increasingly the defining trope of the Vancouver Winter Games as a troubled and ill-conceived enterprise.
“Whenever you go fast, you could die,” said Canadian bobsleigh pilot Lyndon Rush after a training run this afternoon. “Lightning does strike sometimes, like that poor kid in his luge, that’s just unbelievable.”
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, died during a training run last Friday after losing control of his sled and slamming into a metal support beam.
Added Rush, whose strong performance over the World Cup season and lightning speeds during training runs make him a medal contender in the upcoming two and four-man bobsleigh competitions: “This isn’t an easy track but it’s not the hardest track either. It’s a fun track–it’s really fast.”
But the death has raised questions about the track’s safety and the amount of training opportunities provided to international athletes. The controversy is being revisited in part because of approaching bobsleigh events and tonight’s men’s skeleton competition.
“The track is in great shape, the ice is wonderful, it’s very fast and fast in an important condition,” said Italian brakeman Samuele Romalini, who described the track as combining the speed of the track at St. Moritz, Switzerland with the technical challenges of the one at Altenberg, Germany.
The description is in keeping with concerns, highlighted in a Wall Street Journal investigation, that the Whistler track brings together terrific speeds with tight, difficult-to-maneuver turns, a potentially risky marriage.
The WSJ story outlines evidence that organizers designed the Whistler Sliding Centre to be fast and difficult enough to attract competitors to a touristy area of British Columbia well after the closing of the 2010 Olympics, and that commercial interests more than safety drove these efforts.
But Canadian bobsleigh pilot Pierre Lueders dismissed suggestions the track is not safe. “I think [organizers are] doing an excellent job of trying to make it as safe as possible,” he said.
He suggested changes should come in the qualifying procedures that determine who is allowed to compete.
“I think there’s a responsibility from the international federations, the FIBT and the FIL, to ensure that the athletes that are sliding are qualified and have the necessary skill level,” he said. “And also the NOC (National Olympic Committee), I think there’s a responsibility there as well, that these athletes are qualified enough to slide on some of these tracks.”
Romanini, the Italian brakeman, agreed that “the weaker nations have some problems, because they don’t compete in all the competitions during the World Cup,” adding that the track is “fast but it’s not dangerous for us.”
Rush also said he was concerned about some of the weaker sledding nations. “I pray for the guys,” said Rush, a devout Christian. “I hope they stay safe and have a fun Olympics.
“I’m worried to crash in the four-man, too.”