Friday, February 11, 2011

Furlong in for a rough ride

Bob McKeown wore number 42 as a centre with the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders in the early 1970s but he couldn't relax and watch the big four-down game on Super Sunday. That didn't matter, he had to do what he could to preserve the Big Story.

The Fifth Estate reporter was scheduled to interview John Furlong, who happens to be a former Gaelic football player, on Monday in Toronto, when the VANOC CEO was kicking-off a tour to promote his memoir, Patriot Hearts. Furlong, however, wanted to see the documents CBC obtained first, so he could be prepared.

"We arranged to meet him in the lobby of the Royal York," McKeown told me on Feb. 10. "Usually we don't show people things before interviews but this only seemed fair."

The documents are the now famous emails from March 2009 that quote Furlong as being concerned about safety of the Whistler Sliding Centre.

“An athlete gets badly injured, or worse, and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing."

Less than a year later, Nodar Kumaritashvili died on opening day of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Furlong was grief-stricken, but the emails question whether VANOC was guilty of ignoring warnings.

McKeown found out VANOC vice-president of communications Renee Smith-Valade went into damage control mode and convinced the board of directors to leak the documents to official broadcaster CTV and sponsor Globe and Mail.

So McKeown went on-air during the National on Sunday night, which is why he missed the Super Bowl. Normally, he said, a documentary airing on a Friday night would be edited by a Sunday. Not this case. He re-interviewed Furlong, added another interview with David Kumaritasvhili, the victim's father, and talked to former Chief Coroner Diane Rothon.

It will all be revealed on Friday, Feb. 11 at 9 p.m. (and repeated Sunday at 10 a.m.) on the Fifth Estate's Death at the Olympics.

"We've done a lot of stories which have been contentious never had one of the characters in the story leaking the material to other people," he said.

McKeown said he "admired the job (Furlong) did on the Games very much."

"He's a very direct guy in certain ways. Once he knew we had these documents, though he was also sharing them with others, he lived up to his commitment to talk to us."

But Furlong was not entirely forthcoming because "there are topics he clearly wants to avoid."

Though ruled an accident by the B.C. Coroners Service, Kumaritashvili's relative inexperience and the speed, difficulty and G-forces of the track were the the contributing factors. But FIL blamed driver error.

"Three of the four were directly related to the design of the track," McKeown said.

Furlong claimed that VANOC did all safety modifications the two federations agreed upon.

"They didn't," McKeown said. "When he says they did everything they (FIL and FIBT) asked, that's not really true. They did everything they both signed-off on.

"To the best of our knowledge those modifications were not made. I've asked John Furlong directly several times, this last interview I asked him seven times."

Death at the Olympics includes interviews with outspoken American luger Tony Benshoof and Patrick Singleton, a luger from Bermuda, whose Bermuda shorts are on display at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne.

Be warned, the documentary includes footage of the crash and some of the grisly aftermath. The sound of Kumaritashvili striking an unpadded pole still makes me shiver. But McKeown said it is necessary to tell the story.

"That's one of those calls, I fully understand people that say why do we have to watch this again, we only show it in action once and otherwise we rely on the stills to do it," McKeown said. "But to understand what happened, how it happened and the role the track played you really have to see that unfortunately."

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