Whistler 2010 – Is the Sliding Track too Fast?
The 2010 Winter Olympics will be remembered for many positive things, but Whistler’s Sliding Sports Centre, will unfortunately not be one of them. A tragic, and what some may even deem senseless death will forever more be associated with the track, now that the death of the Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, has occurred.
And yes while technically this death wasn’t a part of the Olympic Games, since it occurred during a practice run, I doubt that type of hair splitting will make it into the history books when the 2010 Olympics are mentioned in the future.
The track is notoriously fast. International athletes with little experience on such a state of the art sliding surface find the track intimidating to say the least and downright scary to be totally frank. The 21 year old Georgian luger reported remarked to his father that he was afraid of one of the turns, the day before a horrific crash took his life.
Now that bobsledders are taking their practice runs and crashing in the process, track safety is again being called into question.
How Fast is too Fast
For a sport based in large part on speed and aerodynamic gliding, some think it improper to limit the speed a course is able to produce. They believe an athlete should travel as fast as is possible, regardless of the danger. If you don’t crash, you are not in any risk some reason.
Of course in a perfect world there would be no crashes, but since we don’t live in a perfect world and no one athlete is able to perfectly maneuver a course. Split second timing is just as crucial and as important as maneuverability and experience. It is wrong to expect an error-less ride from each and every athlete.
With that in mind then, the question becomes at what speed can crashes occur without risking the life of the luger, bobsledder or skeleton rider? It was determined the luge track was too fast because speeds were approach, equaling, or exceeding 95 mph. The track was shortened and some ice removed from the last turn (where the Georgian crashed) so that speeds were reduced by on average 5 miles per hour.
Some athletes were vocal about their disapproval. The starting gate was referred to as ‘the old lady's start’ or words similar to those. The course was criticized for being too slow for those who had grown accustomed to reaching top speed at a certain point of their run. Shortening the course did not allow them to do so any longer and they complained it put them at a disadvantage.
The Inexperienced Athlete
What if you are from a small country that does not possess a state of the art facility, how do you compensate for your lack of experience on such a quick sliding surface? Some argue there is no equalizer for experience and practice. Younger athletes feeling pumped up and excited may convince themselves they can handle a course like Whistler’s Olympic track, but can they really? Even experience, seasoned lugers were crashing. True they did not receive life threatening injuries, but just the fact that they were crashing lead to questions.
The Georgian luger made it down to the very last turn. It was referred to as a freak accident by one of the USA coaches. Of all the spots to crash, that was the least likely turn to expect a life-ending injury. Yet, it happened. The G-forces were so great that once the miscalculation occurred, the luger could not control the speed or place of impact. Leaving one to speculate if he would have experienced such a deadly crash had he had more experience on faster tracks?
A Compilation of Opinions and Olympic Statistics
Problems with the track speed have been occurring since the World Cup events were held last year. Several of the world's top bobsled drivers crashed trying to make their way down the track known for its tricky curves and unbelievable speed.
American captain Steven Holcomb referred to one of the course's toughest sections — the 13th curve — as "50-50" meaning you have a 50 percent chance of steering through it successfully.
Kumaritashvili, the 21 year old Georgian, crashed in a turn nicknamed "Thunderbird." His last recorded speed was 89.4 mph, a measurement taken near the last curve. He found himself on a higher path line, than most sliders prefer, and the combination of speed and gravitational pull was too much for his 176-pound body to control.
Kumaritashvili's inexperience may have played a factor in the crash, but he had qualified to compete. This would have been his first Olympics. He competed in five World Cup races this season, finishing 44th in the world standings. Of course qualifying doesn't necessarily give you the experience you need to avoid serious injury, especially on such a difficult course.
"When you are going that fast it just takes one slip and you can have that big mistake," U.S. doubles luger Christian Niccum said, when asked about track safety. "All of us are very calm going down, but if you start jerking at 90 mph or making quick reactions, that sled will steer. That's the difference between luge and bobsled and skeleton, we're riding on a very sharp edge and that sled will go exactly where we tell it to so you better be telling it the right things on the way down"
Two-time Olympic champion Armin Zoeggeler of Italy crashed, losing control of his sled on Curve 11. Zoeggeler came off his sled and held it with his left arm to keep it from smashing on top of his body. He slid on his back down several curves before finally coming to a stop.
A Romanian woman was knocked unconscious and at least four Americans — Chris Mazdzer, Megan Sweeney, and both Benshoof and Bengt Walden in the same training session where Zoeggeler wrecked — have had serious trouble just getting down the track.
The official Olympic Luge Federation has deemed the course safe and while crashes are a big part of the sport some, who have been around tracks their entire lives, couldn't remember someone actually being thrown over the wall.
The International Luge Federation and Vancouver Olympic officials said their investigation showed that the crash was the result of human error and that "there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track."
In a joint statement they said Kumaritashvili was late coming out of the next-to-last turn and failed to compensate. "This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled, resulting in the tragic accident."
"It's a very rare situation," three-time Olympic champion and German coach Georg Hackl stated.
Before the accident, Hackl said he didn't believe the Whistler track was unsafe.
"People have the opinion it is dangerous but the track crew does the best it can and they are working hard to make sure the track is in good shape and everyone is safe,"
"My opinion is that it's not any more dangerous than anywhere else."
Others respectfully disagree.
"The track is too fast," Joseph Fendt, president of the World Luge Federation, told London's Daily Telegraph. "We had planned it to be a maximum of 137 km/h but it is about 20km/h faster.
"We think this is a planning mistake.''
In a sport that pushes athletes to be faster, and more dangerous, there were more than a few who expressed concern that a tipping point had been reached because of the speed of the Whistler course.
After she nearly lost control Thursday, Australia's Hannah Campbell-Pegg said this to reporters:
"I think they are pushing it a little too much. 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.''
The course features several dangerous elements, including an imposing 152-metre drop. The original plan called for that drop to be 149 metres.
It's the longest in the world and equivalent to 48 stories. The 1,450-metre course has 16 turns.
In training, Manuel Pfister set a speed record when he hit 154 km/h. That topped the 153.98 km/h record set at the same course last year.
Compounding the speed concerns, the Whistler course has an unusual design where the tighter corners are near the bottom where racers often max out their speeds.
In an interview with NBC, American luger Tony Benshoof said: "When I first got on this track, I thought that somebody was going to kill themselves."
Also, officials from other countries suggested it was irresponsible for Canadian authorities to limit practice times to 40 training runs. The Canadian athletes had more than 300.
"Please, let there be no accidents there because that could kill the sport," Andy Schmid, the performance director of British Skeleton, told Canwest News Service leading up to the Olympics.
One Final Note
Perhaps most telling is the word given to the country hosting the next Winter Olympics in 2014. Officials had already told the planners of the 2014 Sochi Games, the speeds at Whistler were unacceptable.
The number of observations and opinions provided both in feet and meters have to make observers wonder if athletes are putting their lives at risk more than usual when they are on this particular track.
Now it’s the Bobsledders’ Turn
At least 11 two-man bobsleds have spilled sideways in the first two days of training at the Vancouver Games, with two athletes - including a legitimate gold-medal favorite - possibly knocked out of the competition before it even begins this weekend.
“Stupid fast” was the opinion of one bobsledder after she crashed on the track.
Reports seem to indicate the track will again be adjusted for safety.
I think that’s a good thing. No one should have to bury a child because of participation in an Olympic Game.