Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Penny counts the costs

Penny Ballem can’t please all the politicians, all the time.

Vancouver’s city manager, who is also a VANOC director, made a valiant effort to report to council April 20 on civic taxpayers’ bill for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The tally was a gross $729.2 million, which was whittled to $554.3 million with help from the federal and British Columbia governments. Her agenda, obtained under Freedom of Information, shows she met Feb. 24 with senior city hall staff including report author Annette Klein to discuss “Olympic costing.”

Coun. Suzanne Anton, the lone NPA holdover from the 2005-2008 council, criticized Ballem for including the $299.8 million of city facilities at the Olympic Village.

COPE Coun. Ellen Woodsworth read a list of items that didn’t make it into the report -- such as the sweetheart rent deal for VANOC, cost of closing Coal Harbour and Roundhouse Community Centres (to be the protocol centre and House of Italy, respectively), reduced hours at city hall and loss of revenue at local businesses because of transportation and security restrictions. If your business wasn't a downtown hotel or restaurant, chances are you suffered in February.

Ballem revealed that when she became city manager in December 2008, there was no accounting for civic Olympic costs, beyond the $20 million legacy reserve fund. “When I first started, I had been taken aback,” Ballem said. “I don’t think I was ever able to find a budget.”

Ballem said items were included because they were capital projects exclusively for the Games or on an accelerated Olympic schedule or operational expenses and reallocations. The broad definition corresponds with former B.C. Auditor General Arn van Iersel’s interpretation. He estimated in 2006 that the Games would cost B.C. taxpayers $2.5 billion, based on items planned or built on an Olympic-dictated schedule for use in supporting or staging the Games. His successor John Doyle said the provincial government was downplaying costs.

Wherever you are on the spectrum, you can’t fault Ballem for her effort. What other bureaucrat in this province is trying to deliver the truth to the people who paid for the party?

Certainly not Philip Steenkamp, the president of the B.C. 2010 Winter Games Secretariat.

His boss, Olympics minister Mary McNeil and her boss Premier Gordon Campbell keep telling us Vancouver 2010 was the “most successful in Olympic Winter Games history.” That communications strategy is based on the old maxim that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it.

It’s only a matter of time before their house of cards crashes. VANOC may very well balance its books, but only with the International Olympic Committee’s bailout and a substantial, unannounced infusion from taxpayers.

The B.C. Fiberals and VANOC are just making us wait until they hope we won’t notice or care. They think October is safe.

One thing is certain, there won’t be a provincial “Ballemization” of Olympic costs, according to McNeil. Citizens and the media will have to search through the entire annual public spending report for the government to find out.

“There will not be a separate report (by the Olympic Games Secretariat), but as I’ve said, all expenses will be published in the Public Accounts, and they will be reviewed by the Auditor General,” McNeil said in a budget hearing on April 20.

That may be news to the Office of the Auditor General. Executive director Michael Macdonell didn’t offer any certainty in an April 9 email response to me.

“We are not the auditor of VANOC, and so will evaluate our position once we have received and assessed (its final) report,” Macdonell said.

VANOC, by the way, stopped publishing quarterly financial reports last year. McNeil misspoke when she said its most recent was in January.

VANOC is actually violating section 4.4 of the Multiparty Agreement that said the organizing committee will publish financial statements 60 days after the end of each quarter, in each fiscal year.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Blame game not over

The much-anticipated report into the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili from the International Luge Federation was published at 3 a.m. Vancouver time on April 19.

Yeah, I woke up to be among the first to read it and write about it. Reporters who remained asleep didn't miss much. Maybe I was expecting too much from a typical European-based sports federation in self-preservation mode.

The 20-page document has few new revelations, no diagrams and no definitive timeline. (Note to FIL: a timeline should contain times. Your page 16 doesn't.) There is a photograph of Kumaritashvili on page 3 and kind words about the 21-year-old who died on the opening day of the 21st Winter Games. It details the donations to Kumaritashvili's family and does say that the family continues to wait for the VANOC insurance payment.

FIL continues to blame "driver error" and it describes how Kumaritashvili died. But it doesn't describe the why.

Tacked onto the story in the Telegraph by its Olympics editor Jacquelin Magnay is a fact box containing five unanswered questions.

Five unanswered questions
- Why was the steel pillar positioned directly next to the track and alongside a turn previously identified as dangerous?
- Why was the steel pillar unprotected without padding?
- Why wasn’t the track modified in the year before the Olympic Games when athletes had officially complained about the dangers?
- Why weren’t international sliders given more official practice time in the months leading up to the Games?
- Why did the International officials approve the track when excessive speed had already been identified as a problem?

Will the British Columbia Coroners Service enlighten us when it reports next month? Or will we have to wait for VANOC and FIL executives to testify in a Coroner's inquest or B.C. Supreme Court lawsuit?

This story is not over. As long as these questions remain, the sport of luge, the Whistler Sliding Centre and VANOC will live under a black cloud.

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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