Whistler's fast—and deadly—track

The plethora of wipe outs during the international training week was a big concern going into the Games

The obviously shaken heads of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, and VANOC, John Furlong, today promised a quick and thorough investigation of the luge accident that took the life of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a 21-year-old Georgian. But there will be no shortage of coaches and athletes who will say that the problem is the track itself; the fastest in the world, and among its most difficult.

There was plenty of griping at last February’s bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup test events in Whistler. Even those who liked it, like Maya Pederson, the Swiss star who won skeleton gold in Turin, told us that track was unbelievably quick. “It’s a very difficult track you really have to be a good driver…it’s one of the fastest tracks. I’ve never slid that fast,” she said after her final run. “Some tracks you don’t have to work that hard. Here you have to work, work, work. And until the finish, you don’t really feel the speed.”

By the end of four days of World Cup events, the 1,450-m-long track had proven itself the fastest sled run on earth. A dozen competitors in the four-man bobsleigh smashed the previously unattainable 150 km/h barrier. And entering the 16th and final turn—the one where Kumaritashvili flew off the track—the sleds were in fighter-jet territory, pulling more than five Gs.

But the biggest concern was the plethora of wipe outs during the international training week that proceeded the World Cup races . Track managers were left scrambling to deal with the track’s “anomalies”—the almost imperceptible bumps or dips that can throw a sled off-course as it careens through the corners. The work was painstaking, with every centimetre of the track shaped by hand, built up through repeated water mistings, then scraped and smoothed by crews wielding razor-sharp blades.

Bob Storey, the former Canadian bobsledder who now heads the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (FIBT) defended the track. In an interview with Maclean’s he spoke at length about his confidence in the course—one that was designed to the specifications of the FIBT and the International Luge Federation, and built with their active participation. “It’s a good challenging track for everybody. It’s safe, but tough,” he said last February. “If you make a little mistake you can get through, but if you make a big one, you’re going to pay for it.”

Storey who survived a horrific 1966 crash at Lake Placid that took the life of his teammate Sergio Zardini, said the talk about the track’s dangers was just that—talk. “Danger, I don’t really know what that word means…This is a challenging track. That is what it is supposed to be. It is not a dangerous track. It’s fast and it’s challenging. Very few tracks these days are dangerous.” And he suggested that the concerns being expressed by coaches and athletes were over blown. “There’s a tendency to talk about how horrible it’s going to be and to consciously or sub-consciously start preparing the rational for a possible lack of success.”

And he dismissed the notion of a Canadian “home track” advantage, using a golf analogy. The local pro may have an advantage at a tournament on his home course, but by the fourth round, it’s gone, he noted. In other words, the cream rises to the top.

There are only 17 sliding tracks in the entire world. The vision for Whistler was to create one that complimented the three existing ones in North America: not as technical as Lake Placid, but more challenging—and faster—than Calgary and Salt Lake.

But those metrics, they succeeded. Now the investigation into Kumaritashvili’s death will determine if they went too far.