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Luge tragedy remains the darkest legacy of 2010

Outside Whistler Sliding Centre’s office, away from the track where he was fatally injured, is an empty bench and a plaque in memory of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili: “In his honour, live life fully and pursue excellence in all that you do,” it says. The flag of Georgia is draped above.

The 21-year-old, from the country next door to Sochi, reached 144.3 km-h during the fateful Feb. 12, 2010 training run on a track that was supposed to allow a maximum 136.3 km-h. His sled flew out of control at 10:50 a.m., catapulting him into an unpadded pole. He was pronounced dead an hour later from blunt force trauma.

 Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia is seen during a training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia is seen during a training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

The only other luger to die on a track at an Olympics was Polish-born-Brit Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski, two weeks before Innsbruck 1964 opened. Kumaritashvili’s death had greater impact: it was broadcast and it was on Vancouver 2010’s opening day.

In February 2011, CBC’s Fifth Estate revealed a March 2009 email by VANOC CEO John Furlong to senior VANOC executives. Designer Udo Gurgel complained that the track was not built as ordered after German Felix Loch had reached almost 154 km-h at a February 2009 test event.

“An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing,” Furlong wrote.

B.C. Coroner Tom Pawlowski declared the death an accident and ordered a track safety audit. The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology recommended the international luge and bobsled federations provide more detailed guidance on track design, a maximum safe velocity, rollover barrier design standards, safety measures, incident analysis, equipment safety and driver/slider competence and equipment.

 Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia was killed after crashing while making a practice run in training ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics on February 12, 2010 in Whistler, Canada. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia was killed after crashing while making a practice run in training ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics on February 12, 2010 in Whistler, Canada. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The men’s start was moved down to the women’s level the day after the tragedy. A new women’s start area was built for the 2013 world championship.

The steep terrain and narrow footprint helped make Whistler’s track the world’s fastest. While Salt Lake’s 2002 track is 450 metres wide, Whistler’s is just 92 m.

Was the design on the slope of Blackcomb influenced by a nearby run-of-river power plant?

SAIT Prof. Alex Zahavich’s audit was supposed to compare the track “as-designed, versus as-built,” but he said his team did not look at “anything relative to the surrounding area.”

The sliding centre was built between 2005 and 2007 -- design changes were ordered in June 2006. It opened in 2008 for a cost of $119 million, more than double the Bid Book budget of $55 million.

Correspondence between power plant builder Ledcor and the Vancouver 2010 Bid Corporation in 2002 and 2003 indicated the location for the penstock pipe for the Fitzsimmons Creek project was contentious. Ledcor was worried that moving the pipe too close to cliffside would increase geotechnical risks and wanted compensation from VANOC for the added costs.

 President of European Olympic Committees Patrick Hickey, foreground, places flowers on the grave of Nodar Kumaritashvili yesterday in Bakuriani, Georgia. VANOC CEO John Furlong stands at centre during a ceremony to honour the luger killed in Whistler.

President of European Olympic Committees Patrick Hickey, foreground, places flowers on the grave of Nodar Kumaritashvili yesterday in Bakuriani, Georgia. VANOC CEO John Furlong stands at centre during a ceremony to honour the luger killed in Whistler.

The 3.4 km pipe was installed in 2009 and comes within 10 metres of the track. Innergex opened the power project in January 2010 for $33 million.

International Luge Federation executive director Svein Romstad was unaware that the penstock was an issue during the bid stage. “What we did post-Whistler is to make sure that the speed calculations that were in the design fit what was actually constructed,” he said last February.

Dan Doyle was VANOC’s venue construction chief and became BC Hydro chairman in 2009.

“It was resolved without much fuss and I do not remember having to change the design of the track because of it,” said Doyle, who is now Premier Christy Clark’s chief of staff. “The basic track design was approved by the sports federations and they inspected it during the course of building it to ensure we met the design.”

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