WHISTLER, B.C. — A day after Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death in a training run, Olympic and International Luge Federation officials were chin deep in damage control.
And they left a lot of people shaking their heads.
First they said it was a mistake by the 21-year-old pilot that led to the crash that took his life. They said the Whistler Sliding Centre track is fast but not too fast. And although they’d decided to lower the start gates for the men’s, women’s and doubles luge events and raise the height of the wall near corner 16 where the incident occurred — an apparent admission that the track played a role in this tragedy — they claimed the changes were made to protect the emotional stability of the athletes who must still compete.
The men will start from the women’s start gate and the women and doubles events will start from the junior start gate.
“The bottom line is that the decisions made are to deal with the emotional components of the athletes to alleviate, as best as possible, the traumatic experience of this tragic event,” Svein Romstad, the American secretary general of the FIL, said Saturday morning.
“As to lowering it because the track is too fast, I would say the primary concern we have right now is the emotional aspect of it. We have not experienced this in 35 years. In our discussions it became clear that none of our athletes had experienced this. They lost a friend yesterday. It is emotional for everyone.”
Canadian coach Wolfgang Staudinger took exception to some of his logic. He agreed that Kumaritashvili’s mistake caused the crash, but he’s not happy about starting from the women’s start and he wondered how these officials would know the emotional state of the athletes.
“Well I don’t think the officials really know what the emotions of the athletes are because they don’t see the athletes on a day-to-day basis,” said Staudinger, a former Olympic slider and national coach with Germany who was hired three years ago to coach the Canadian national team.
“We are the coaches who deal with the athletes. If they think so, well maybe that’s a good thought but maybe they should consult with us in the future and not make decisions maybe based on their emotions.”
Staudinger said the crash was caused by the driver’s error.
“Hundred per cent, that was not a track issue,” he said. “It was a driving error. Something happened in corner 16. There must have been a huge driver error.”
Staudinger said the coaches weren’t consulted in the decision to move the start down the hill.
“We came this morning and we were handed a piece of paper and on that paper was written that the start was moved down to ladies’. The jury made the decision and what ever it is we have to deal with it.”
As for the lower starts, Staudinger made it clear how he feels.
“It’s a new situation,” he said. “We have a flatter start so the advantage is not on our side any more. The advantage is with the Germans right now.
“From a sliding point, it’s not really changing anything.”
French slider Thomas Girod agreed with lowering the start position.
“What happened yesterday, it is very sad,” he said. “But we all agree, it is better to go from the women’s start. I think safety is the best thing now.”
Staudinger said his guys wanted to go from the top.
“Our guys were ready to go from the top and I just spoke with the German team and they all said they would have gone from the top,” Staudinger said. “I think all athletes who compete here, they were ready to go from the top. But we have to accept the jury decision.”
The first two runs in the four-run men’s competition started Saturday evening. Medals will be awarded after the final two runs on Sunday.
Staudinger said his guys — Calgarians Ian Cockerline, Sam Edney and Jeff Christie — will be ready.
“We spoke with them that it was a tragic event and the Games will go on,” he said. “I said we have to be professionals. We have to go about our jobs as professionals. It was not an easy job for the team but we had one good night’s sleep and today they’re focused.”
Romstad said there had been no signals that the track needed to be changed.
“This is a fast sport,” continued Romstad. “Athletes do encounter problems on a regular basis. There was nothing out of the ordinary that signalled there needed to be a change.”
“For us, we believe in terms of the things we did as an organizing committee, we did everything in our power and that we made sure we made that track as safe as we can,” said Tim Gayda, vice president of sport for Vanoc.
“We’ve always wanted to assure a safe and fair field of play. We worked together (with FIL) on a design. The process of getting athletes on that track was a long one and a safe one to make sure that everyone who went down that track stepped up in each of the starts and were really familiar with that track.”
Gayda said about 5,000 runs have been made on the track. Kumaritashvili had 26 of them.
“This is an unprecedented situation and something we’ve taken very seriously,” said Gayda, who also said the lower start gates and the changes to the track are help the athletes deal emotionally with competing on the track.
“This is to ensure that the athletes who still have to get on that ice do so in a positive way,” he said. “We still want an Olympic competition but we have to be respectful of those athletes that their friend died on that track. We want to make sure that they can step on that track with confidence and get down and have an Olympic competition.”