WHISTLER, British Columbia — The Whistler Olympic Track is fast, maybe the fastest track in the world. But officials say it did not cause the death of a 21-year-old Georgian athlete who crashed during training Friday morning.
Following an investigation by the Coroners Service of British Columbia and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the track was re-opened Saturday morning with some precautionary changes to the ice, the track and the start line.
The men's start was moved to the women's traditional start line (lower on the track) and the women's start, as well as the double's start, was likely going to be moved down the track, possibly to where juniors start racing.
Additionally, the track crew was making changes to the profile of the ice, which officials said would keep sliders in the track, even in the event of a crash. Barriers were also erected overnight to shield athletes from the metal poles that Nodar Kumaritashvili collided with after he was thrown from the track.
"We've always wanted to ensure a safe and fair field of play," said Tim Gayda, VANOC vice-president of sport. "We did everything in our power to make the track as safe as we could. It is a fast track, there is no denying that."
Svein Romstad, FIL secretary general, said the changes were both precautionary and for the emotional well-being of athletes.
"I would say the primary concern is the emotional aspect of it," said Romstad, who choked back emotion several times during the 30-minute press conference. "If you look upon it, the men's top speed and the women's top speed is only 10 km different. ...These athletes lost a friend yesterday. And it is an emotional day. ...That is a component they have not dealt with before."
The first athlete down the Whistler track — at about 9:30 a.m. (PST) — was American Tony Benshoof, who had some problems in training on Friday, but navigated the track without problem in training Saturday morning.
"For me personally, for the International Luge Federation, yesterday was the worst day, the saddest day in the history of our sport," said Josef Fendt, the president of the FIL at an early-morning press conference. "We have not had a fatal accident in 35 years on artificial tracks."
Fendt backed off earlier statements that the track was "too fast" saying he meant that he wanted the FIL to be careful not to build a track that was faster than the Whistler Track.
"We want to make sure they're not getting faster," Fendt said through a translator. "It was true we did not expect those speeds on the track (of more than 140 km per hour), but after a while we found out the track is safe for athletes."
Romstad stopped numerous times to compose himself as he detailed the findings of the FIL investigation, which occurred after the BC Coroner's Office and police released the scene Friday night.
"The run of Nodar Kumaritashvili appeared to be routine until curve 15," said Romstad.
There, officials said he "came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance to curve 16. This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem, he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident," a statement from FIL and VANOC said.
Romstad said Kumaritashvili "was a good athlete. He had 26 runs on the Whistler Track. This is a large number of runs for an athlete of his caliber … He participated in five World Cup races this season and he was currently ranked 44th in the world."
VANOC officials and Romstad addressed concerns that athletes from foreign countries were not given enough access to the track, which is considered by both athletes and coaches as the fastest track in the world.
While Gayda said VANOC has provided time to foreign countries to practice according to guidelines provided by the sports governing federations, Romstad said athletes had more practice time on the Whistler track than on any other Olympic course prior to a Winter Games.
"We're quite confident in the number of runs we did allow," Gayda said.
Added Romstad, "In this particular case, we have had more access to the track than there has ever been prior to an Olympic Games. ...The number of runs that each athlete had access to was more than any other Olympic track."
Athletes had complained about the lack of training time even before the 2010 Games began.
Park City's Steve Holcomb, driver of USA 1 and the defending world champion in bobsled, said those in sliding sports are like family and the death had affected all of them. He also questioned whether more training time would have helped avoid crashes, especially for those from smaller countries.
"Everybody can get down the track, the track is difficult as it is," Holcomb said. "The speeds are higher than any other track in the world and there's nowhere to train for that. At the Olympic Games, they limited the amount of access and the training time we could have on the track, and while they're letting the Canadians on to train as much as they want.
"You have smaller nations that have never been down before. It's kind of unfair and now it's a tragedy," he added. "This could have been avoided."
Holcomb, who named one of the curves on the track 50/50 because it is so difficult to maneuver said it is difficult even with practice.
"I only had 40 runs down this track, which is one of the fastest and most difficult in the world. That's just not a good situation to start with," he said. "You're looking at top drivers, we had three world champions in a row crash in the 50/50 curve in a training week earlier this year, so it's not like it's the little guys crashing; it's the big dogs.
"It's a challenge for everybody so I think keeping it closed and not letting people have access to it kind of made it difficult for people to get training on it and now, we have Olympic ice, which is going to be faster than ever, it makes it harder and little mistakes become big mistakes and big mistakes end in tragedy."
The driver of USA 3, Mike Kohn, who qualified for the Olympics in the last World Cup of the season has not been down the course. He said in a press conference Thursday afternoon that he was relying on Holcomb and driver of USA 2, John Napier, to help him navigate what he knows will be a difficult track.
In an afternoon press conference with Mark Adams, an IOC press officer and Renee Smith Valade, vice president of communications, again reiterated officials for both the IOC and VANOC were positive the Whistler Track was safe.
"We have no doubt about the safety and so the games are carrying in," said Adams. He took issue with assertions that VANOC limited training for international teams too severely.
"I would beg to differ," he said. "They had what was the regulation training."
In the earlier press conference with luge officials, Romstad said the FIL's probe consisted of technical judges and luge officials watching video of Kumaritashvili's crash, as well as walking the track and analyzing how the crash occurred and what the contributing factors were.
The men were scheduled to begin the first of four final runs in competition at 5 p.m. Saturday. IOC president Jacques Rogge planned to attend that, as well as ski jumping, where the first medals will be awarded, and women's biathlon.