Sunday, April 18, 2010

Furlong: "We had tested for everything, this was not one of those things."

Whistler memorial to Nodar Kumaritashvili
The mere mention of Nodar Kumaritashvili still makes me cry on the inside. It hit me hard Feb. 12 when I heard there had been a crash at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

It was an already busy day. The Olympic torch relay was in downtown Vancouver, blocked by protesters. Military helicopters and fighter jets buzzed overhead in the hours before the opening ceremony at B.C. Place Stadium, the focal point for world sport.

Just minutes after the crash bulletin hit the news wires, I found the shocking replay video that someone uploaded to YouTube. At best, I thought, he would be paralyzed. He must have been aware of the risks, but he was among the top 50 in the world and was skilled enough to be allowed on the track. The most extreme track in the world, but one the International Luge Federation had deemed safe.

Then CKNW broke the news at the top of its noon newscast, according to a report from Sun Media: A 21-year-old had died on the first day of the 21st Winter Olympics.

It made the clouds hanging over Vancouver that much heavier. It was harder for me to work on the day I anticipated for almost seven years. The half-mast flag at city hall spoke volumes.

That night, the march into B.C. Place Stadium by the Georgian team -- wearing black armbands, sullen faces and the weight of grief on their shoulders -- was greeted with standing ovations. Even the media stood and clapped. Most of us rarely do that.

At a news conference earlier that day, VANOC CEO John Furlong said: “We are heartbroken beyond words to be sitting here. I am so sorry to be in this position, to be reporting this to you. It's not something that I have prepared for, that I ever thought I would need to be prepared for.”

On April 16, during his farewell speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade, Furlong said “We had tested for everything, this was not one of those things. We tested for every conceivable thing that could happen to us so that we could know what to do if it happened during the Games.”

I regret, for fear of being callous, not challenging Furlong on that statement after the Board of Trade speech. I know it's easy for me to criticize. I didn't have to stand before the world on Feb. 12 like Furlong did. Furlong helped carry Kumaritashvili's coffin at a Feb. 15 funeral in Vancouver and he went to Georgia after the Paralympics to be with Kumaritashvili's heartbroken family. All noble gestures. Not one was easy or without emotion.

It is simply inconceivable that the potential for an athlete death at such a large event featuring such dangerous sports was never considered. If the risk had never been discussed at a VANOC executive planning meeting, then someone was not doing his or her job.

Even bigger risks with much less likelihood were on the minds of VANOC partners.

The Canadian government spent $900 million on security and public safety for the Vancouver Olympics and that budget included funds for the RCMP and Canadian Forces to practice nuclear and chemical bomb scenarios. It also included fake newscasts organized by Public Safety Canada!

Yes, I know about Munich 1972 and Atlanta 1996, but I’m not aware of a single terrorist-caused death at any Winter Games.

There were, however, at least four fatalities involving athletes and officials at Winter Games before Vancouver.

Tragedy struck twice at Innsbruck 1964. Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypeski of Great Britain died in the Olympic luge track at Igls, Austria two weeks before opening. Skier Ross Milne of Australia crashed in a practice for the men’s downhill.

At Calgary 1988, Austrian surgeon Jorg Oberhammer fell under a snow grooming machine after colliding with another skier. Shocked Olympians Pirmin Zurbriggen and Martin Hangl witnessed from the chairlift above.

At Albertville 1992, Swiss speedskater Nicholas Bochatay ran into a snowcat while skiing outside the competition area. Three weeks before Lillehammer 1994, Ulrike Maier of Austria was killed at the world cup race in Garmisch-Partenkirschen.

Every time I visited the Whistler Sliding Centre for sliding sports’ training sessions or competitions, there was always a pair of B.C. Ambulance Service ambulances with four paramedics at the ready. This didn’t sit well with members of their union, who were fighting for a new collective bargaining agreement.

The Canadian Academy of Sport Medicine met in Vancouver at the Westin Bayshore June 3-7, 2009. Before the convention, 48 doctors from across the country participated in a simulated bobsled crash at the Justice Institute of B.C. in New Westminster. The exercise scenario involved the aftermath of a four-man bobsled flying off the track and into the grandstand. Members of the Games-time medical team not only had experience working at sliding sports events, but also motorsports races. Just as athletes knew the risks, the doctors knew the grisly results of the worst accidents.

Longtime Vancouverites remember the tragic death of Maple Ridge CART driver Greg Moore in the last race of the 1999 season at Fontana, Calif., and the 1990 death of Molson Indy Vancouver track worker Jean Patrick Hein. Hein was struck by the car of Willy T. Ribbs at a chicane near B.C. Place Stadium.

VANOC had insurance policies for Olympic participants, to protect against serious injury and death claims. One such policy will compensate Kumaritashvili’s parents.

It also seems inconceivable that VANOC’s communications department had not considered a fatality.
VANOC vice-president of communications Renee Smith-Valade’s previous career was a communications executive with Air Canada.

Canadian carriers have been involved in relatively few tragedies, but Canadians have had front-row seats to some of the most famous air disasters. Sikh terrorists killed 329 people in the 1985 Air India flight 182 that blew-up off the coast of Ireland. The flight originated in Montreal. Swissair flight 111 crashed near Halifax in 1998 when faulty wiring started an onboard fire, killing 229.

A company as big as Air Canada with so much at stake must’ve had a crisis communications plan ready if and when the unthinkable happened.

* * * * *

I write this in anticipation of the April 19 release of an IOC-ordered report by the International Luge Federation. The report is supposed to spread the blame because FIL says there is no single cause.

That seems to be an aboutface from Feb. 13 when the IOC, FIL and VANOC rushed to blame the athlete. They refused to criticize the fastest track in the world, the quality of maintenance or the booking policies that gave preference to Canadian athletes.

Georgia's President, Mikheil Saakashvili said it best at a Vancouver news conference.

"I've heard remarks from the international (luge) federation that what happened was because of human error," Saakashvili said. "I don't claim to know the technical details, but one thing that I know for sure is that no sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death."

Blogger Phil Butler has a keen eye. A reader of his noticed something unusual on the video replay of Kumaritashvili’s last run. Could Kumaritashvili have been distracted?

“The initial supposed investigation pointed out that Nodar made a critical error going into turn 16, but they failed to mention workers wagging poles in the luger’s line of site just before he entered the shadows under their constructions.”

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