(See Corrections & Amplifications item below.)
Years before a young luge racer from the Republic of Georgia flew to his death at the Olympics last week, officials made a series of decisions designed to make the icy track a commercial success after the Games but that left it faster, and ultimately more dangerous, than any competitive track before.
Whistler's Fast Track
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A luger slid past an improvised safety wall at the Whistler Sliding Center Saturday.
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Driven in part by the desire to locate the luge and bobsled track for the 2010 Vancouver Games in a high-traffic tourist area with cold temperatures, planners chose a valley at Whistler resort that was steeper and narrower than sites of previous Olympic tracks, according to press reports and interviews with those involved.
The result was a track whose speeds marked a quantum leap in a sport where even small increases require big adjustments from the athletes. After trials of the track in 2008, the course's German designer says he told the Vancouver Games' organizers and the international luge and bobsledding governing bodies that he was revising the track's projected luge speed upward by 5.5%—to 96 miles an hour—nearly nine miles an hour faster than the standing 2000 world speed record.
According to 2008 engineering documents and letters reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, officials signed off on the course's speeds. By last year, some of these officials said such speeds are unsafe and recommended that courses built in the future be slower.
Following the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Vancouver organizing committee, Vanoc, and the international federation that governs luge racing said the track was safe. The racer, they say, failed to control his sled.
In the wake of the death, Vanoc and the governing bodies for luge and bobsledding, which use the same track, added a large wooden wall on the outside of the turn where the Georgian flew off the track. They padded the steel posts that bore the brunt of the collision. They also made moves to slow top speeds, including starting all luge athletes from lower points on the course to slow them down by as much as five miles an hour.
Olympics: Luge Track Compromised From the Start
WSJ's Reed Albergotti reports about how design and location choices may have compromised the luge track that proved fatal during a training run.
Georgian Luger's Body Arrives Home
The body of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili arrives at his family's home, as those close to him vent their anger about his death at the Olympics. Video courtesy of Reuters.
"It's a high-speed sport," said Renee Smith-Valade, spokeswoman for Vanoc. "A miscalculation can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences." She added that there were no major injuries in two years of trials and training and that athletes were exhilarated by the course.
Vanoc on Tuesday declined to make officials involved in track planning available to respond to specific questions about the track's safety and planning, citing their packed Olympic schedules.
A reconstruction of the events leading up to Mr. Kumaritashvili's death shows that the track was the result of decisions that weren't entirely related to sport.
Before Vancouver bid for the 2010 Winter Games, the city's organizing committee consulted closely with the two international federations that set standards for bobsledding and luge tracks: the International Luge Federation and International Federation of Bobsleigh and Tobogganing. The federations and organizing committee members first looked at Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, which they considered a top choice for the track, say people involved in the course's early planning.
But soon, the Vancouver bid committee agreed to move the location up into the Coast Mountains to the ski resort of Whistler, where the alpine ski events would be taking place.
Tim Gayda, the vice president of sport for the Vancouver organizing committee, told the Vancouver Sun in October 2002 that the decision would make the track financially viable after the Games.
"In order to make this thing financially sustainable, we want it someplace where people will pay top dollar to go whipping down this thing in both summer and winter," Mr. Gayda told the newspaper. The luge and bobsledding federations, he added, were "pushing us to look at options at Whistler."
The Sport of Luge
Olympic silver medalist in luge, Gordy Sheer, shares some details about the sport, speed and safety with WSJ's Reed Albergotti.
Changes Made in Olympic Luge
While insisting that the track at the Whistler Sliding Center was safe, Olympic and luge officials announced several changes to the luge competition. Video courtesy of Reuters.
Georgia Leader: No Mistake Should Lead to Death
Georgian President Mikahail Saakshvili speaks about the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili.
The Vancouver organizing committee didn't make Mr. Gayda or others associated with constructing the track available for comment. Officials with the International Olympic Committee referred questions about the track's specifications to the luge and bobsled federations.
The International Luge Federation declined to respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment on detailed questions about the track.
Bob Storey, the bobsled federation's president and a former bobsledder, said it would be jumping to conclusions to blame the Mr. Kumaritashvili's crash on speed. "The Royal Canadian Mounted Police did not attribute it to design flaws and did not attribute it to speed," he said. "The reason they call it an accident is that nobody can define the cause."
Weather was one factor in locating the run in Whistler, said Terry Gudzowsky, a technical delegate for the bobsled federation who, as a then-member of Canada's bobsled federation, participated in the initial planning. Grouse Mountain often has warmish, wet winters that could lead to mushier, slower ice. Mr. Gudzowsky said he advocated at the time moving it to Whistler, whose higher elevation made it more appealing to the sport.
"That was not an engineering decision," said the bobsled federation's Mr. Storey. "That was a commercial decision."
The available land at Whistler was steep and narrow. The committee found a plot about 100 yards wide by roughly 800 yards long. The topography meant the course would be unusually difficult and fast, according to the bobsled federation's Mr. Gudzowsky.
Mr. Gudzowsky recalls sitting in a municipal-building room in Whistler with a topographical map and drawing a fall line for the course. "It would have been nicer if the site would have been wider," he says. But the land seemed good enough. "The perfect location for a track has not been found yet."
Mr. Gudzowsky says his sketch was sent to German luge-course designer Udo Gurgel.
The 71-year-old Mr. Gurgel had built most of the major new luge runs in the world, including six Olympic tracks, over four-plus decades. He says the Whistler terrain was one of the steepest and narrowest possible. Its 100-yard-wide valley compares with Calgary's 300 yards and Salt Lake City's 500 yards.
That meant the site was too narrow to build in typical speed-slowing long curves, such as "kreisel" curves, he said. Whistler's had to be short and tight, which meant high gravitational forces against the driver in the curves and, toward the end, because the G-forces would be too much to bear, almost no curves, allowing sleds to break through previous top speeds.
Complete Coverage: Vancouver Olympics
The course's dangers became part of its marketing.
"Vivid, violent and rough— the Whistler Sliding Centre is not for the faint of heart," the Web site of the center, operated by Vanoc, said in promotional material that remained on the site this week. "The track has a rhythm that every slider must try to capture. Sliders must find it early in their run. If they lose it, it will be hard to get back on the beat."
Soon after the track opened for testing in March 2008, it became apparent that it was faster than expected. Mr. Gurgel had projected a top speed of about 91 miles an hour for the luge. That speed was matched immediately by a test rider, Mr. Gurgel said, implying that speeds would rise once athletes got used to the tracks.
"It was crazy fast," recalls Polish luger Maciej Kurowski, who tried the track when it opened. "Everyone wants to go faster and faster in this sport."
Mr. Gurgel reprogrammed his computer simulator to take into account the early test runs and came up with a top speed of about 96 miles an hour.
Mr. Gurgel says he relayed his findings to the two federations and Vanoc in March 2008. In a letter dated March 17, 2008, and reviewed by the Journal, the International Federation for Bobsleigh told Mr. Gurgel that the federation had formally approved the Whistler Sliding Centre as a venue for international competition.
According to the letter, the federation conditioned its approval on the construction of safety walls and guidelines that require inexperienced riders to start lower down the course.
Lugers themselves were beginning to express concerns. Austrian Wolfgang Kindl said that after test runs in 2008, he and his teammates discussed how the course's lack of turns and ever-increasing speed made it hard to make corrections. "If you started to have problems there was nothing you could do because of the speed," he said after placing ninth at this week's medal competition.
“ The error wasn't in designing a difficult, fast course - the error was in failing to ensure that, at any given point on the course, a crash would NOT result in a head-on collision with a solid piece of metal. That error made the difference between injury and instantaneous death. ”
Luge federation officials reacted to those concerns about the Whistler course earlier this year, saying that future luge runs shouldn't exceed 87 miles an hour, the old speed record. But the decision didn't affect existing tracks, so the Vancouver track wouldn't be changed. The day before Mr. Kumaritashvili's death, another Austrian luger hit Mr. Gurgel's projected 96-mile-an-hour maximum speed.
That prompted Josef Fendt, head of the luge federation, to tell the Journal in an interview after the death that he was surprised by the new speeds.
But Mr. Gurgel says that even that speed was lower than he had told officials to expect. Late last year, working from data from 2008 and 2009, he modeled a possible top speed of about 102 miles an hour. He says he forwarded his findings to officials at the two federations, who he said agreed the facility would be safe at higher speeds.
As often happens during Olympic controversies, it is unclear who bears ultimate responsibility among numerous committees and federations.
The IOC and Vanoc have both said they aren't responsible for the tracks because they essentially subcontract technical specifications out to the luge and bobsleigh federations.
It's unclear whether anyone can be held legally liable. All athletes involved in the games must sign a legal liability waiver with the IOC, which says that they participate at their own risk.
Some legal experts say that any potential lawsuit filed against the IOC, the luge federations or the designers by Mr. Kumaritashvili's family—which has said it doesn't want to sue—would face significant hurdles. The law in Canada, the U.S. and many other countries provides that people participating in potentially dangerous sports "assume" the risks inherent in them and therefore are often barred from suing, unless lawyers could show organizers' negligence.
Luger Who Died Was Terrified of Track
IOC Comments on WSJ Investigation Into Luge Track
That authorities made changes to the track after the accident might seem to indicate an acknowledgment of fault. But Ryan Rodenberg, a lawyer who teaches sports law at Indiana University, says that for public-policy reasons, such evidence would likely not be admissible in court as proof of such acknowledgment. "You don't want people shying away from corrections or improvements because they fear they'll be used against them in court," said Mr. Rodenberg.
One potential issue may have been the division of labor in laying out the course. Mr. Gurgel said that at other tracks, he has been the general contractor, in charge of building the safety walls and other equipment. This time, he was limited to designing the sheet of concrete that became the track, with the Vancouver organizers contracting out the safety features and the roof, which required the supporting column that Mr. Kumaritashvili hit. Officials from the luge and bobsled federations say the safety walls weren't the problem.
—Geoffrey A. Fowler, Ashby Jones, Matthew Futterman and Adam Thompson contributed to this article.
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Corrections & Amplifications
Whistler, British Columbia, is situated in Canada's Coast Mountains. An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated it is in the Canadian Rockies. The above article has been corrected.