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Luger's death: Questions mount over who bears responsibility

Officials closed the 2010 Olympics luge track yesterday to investigate its safety after Georgian competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili died crashing in a practice run. Alarms had been raised by lugers who tried the course in the days and hours before Kumaritashvili's death, and after the terrible news broke, the president of the International Luge Federation, Josef Fendt, echoed their claims, calling the course "too fast."

"We had planned it to be a maximum of 137 kilometres an hour but it is about 20 km/h faster. We think this is a planning mistake,'' he said.

Today it was reported that the track had been altered to make it safer and runs would be starting at a lower spot to lessen top speeds.

Despite those moves, Sven Romstad of the International Olympic Committee maintained, "There was nothing out of the ordinary that signalled the need for change."

He added: "This is a fast sport and there are athletes who do encounter problems."

Those, like Romstad, who imply the Georgian's death was mainly due to his own bad luck and perhaps lack of skill, point out the track is two years old and has seen more than 5,000 runs since it opened.

But hard questions persist about responsibility for the Kumaritashvili tragedy. Who decided to make the course so fast? When were the first alarms raised and to whom? What was the response? Did the desire to gain an edge for Canadian athletes factor into such decisions? Did the desire to provide a spectacle of heightened speed and therefore danger factor into such decisions?

The answers to those questions are not clear at the moment. But as they emerge, Olympics organizers will be defending themselves against accusations like those hurled by sports writer Ed Berliner, published by The Examiner and The Huffington Post, who writes today:

"There is blood on the hands of the International Olympic Committee. On the hands of someone who decided a track this fast would give Canadian competitors an edge because they could practice on it much more often than those from other parts of the world. And on the hands of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee for going along with this insane and now proven deadly idea to emerge with a few more pieces of gold and silver."

Berliner lays out his case:

"Canadian Olympic officials puffed up their chests in the weeks and months prior to the opening ceremonies, telling all who would listen that they would own the medal platform at their home games. To do anything less would be a national disgrace...

"But it is now alarmingly evident the apparent lengths that were taken to tip the odds in their favor.

"Vancouver Olympic organizers, with the blessing of the IOC, turned to noted German engineer Udo Gurgel to design this track. Gurgel's reputation is well known in Olympic circles, having mathematically engineered layouts for the three previous Winter Olympics.

"A Canadian-based company, Stantec Architecture Ltd., took those numbers and created the track. One designed by the man whose previous concepts, put into proper use and followed to the letter, produced fast and competitive layouts that created a challenging, but safe, test for the athletes.

"So while this track was naturally designed for speed, Gurgel's expertise and calculations, if followed precisely, could not and would not have taken this test beyond the expected limits of human ability. It was meticulously designed to allow speeds of up to 85 mph, the number these athletes train for and are thus prepared for.

"The Vancouver track was tested in advance of the Games. The results were alarming and should have set off not merely concerns about the speed, but how it could affect the competition.

"Speeds of up to 95 mph. A 12 per cent increase in what was planned and expected. Well beyond the current endurance level of these athletes. Well beyond what left the designer's table."

Yesterday afternoon, Vancouver author and housing developer Howard Rotberg sent an email to various B.C. media, including The Tyee, saying every fan of the Olympics bears some responsibility for the death of Kumaritashvili.

"Was it the track that was made unreasonably fast and dangerous, all for the better entertainment of the fans?

"Was it the Canadian Olympics folks who banned other teams than Canada from practicing on the track before this week, so that Canada would be more likely to win?

"Was it the gross negligence of the designers of the facility by having unprotected steel beams close to the most dangerous part of the track, without anyone bothering to put protective padding on the steel?

"Not exactly -- we all killed him. We who let ourselves be 'snowed' by the sports bureaucrats, the big corporations, the self-aggrandizing politicians, and especially the corrupted mainstream media to cheer on this ... monstrosity."

The Tyee is pointing fingers at no one until the facts emerge. But Olympics organizers must be aware that questions, and pressure, will only mount until answers are provided.

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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