Behind the scenes at the Whistler Sliding Center

My good friend Jacob was fortunate enough to score a job with the Vancouver Olympics. [A little aside: this guy serendipitously ends up all over the world doing all the cool things that you and I wish we were doing. That’s a story for a different day though.] He was a photo assistant at the Whistler Sliding Center. Which means, as I understand it, that he was in charge of where the photographers got to stand, made sure all of those photogs were playing nice, and staying out of the way of the TV folks. He even ended up in a few of NBCs shots of the end of course on a couple of occasions. Despite being surrounded by all of the Olympic hub bub, Jake was perhaps most effected by Nodar Kumaritišvili’s fateful last run. Here’s the report from a man at the scene.

More than watching Nodar Kumaritišvili’s body fly through the air, rag-doll arms flailing; more than the awful suddenness (and the noise—the noise!) that stopped him; more than the blood, which covered the inside of his helmet like a thick coat of paint; more than his best friend and training partner, Levan Gureshidze, who, instead of giving him a high five and a firm hug at the finish line, watched a medic perform useless chest compressions as the blood kept spreading, growing it’s ugly stain, a spilled bottle of wine wasted uselessly on the ice and cement. More than all of this coming on my first day working at the Whistler Sliding Center (WSC) as a photography assistant for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics; More than anything, I can’t shake the impermanence of life.

Mr. Kumaritišvili was 21 years old. He was at the top of his physical form, possessed a BA in economics, was a devout member of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and was deeply loved by his family. His father, David, had also been a luger and told the AP that his son was worried that the WSC was too dangerous. “He told me: I will either win or die,” David Kumaritišvili said. “But that was youthful bravado, he couldn’t be seriously talking about death.” Not to be superstitious, but this had been Mr. Kumaritišvili’s 13th run from the top of the track, and he started to lose control on the 50-50 curve (named thus because those are your chances of making it through), which just happens to be curve 13.

Two Runs before Mr. Kumaritišvili’s fatal run.

Two Runs before Mr. Kumaritišvili’s fatal run.

Nodar Kumaritišvili’s father, David holds up a picture of his son

Nodar Kumaritišvili’s father, David holds up a picture of his son

All of us watching the graphic horror before us were stunned speechless, an occasional curse or prayer breaking the silence and disbelief. All of us, that is except for the photographers and the videographers who bickered and fought over just who should get the coveted space to acquire their “money shot.” The sliding center staff eventually opted to fend off the media with the wooden poles that they use to pull down the sun-screens.  Others used the grappling hooks that they later used to haul overturned bobsleds up to the offload (3 out of 4 bobsleds overturned during their test runs…more adjustments to the ice were eventually made). The amount of fighting and frenetic paparazzi-esque, TMZ jockeying turned my stomach more than the blood. Later, in the media center, I was told to remove my credentials, leave the venue, and talk to no one. It was a very somber day. I took the next two days off from work to process through what happened.

One of the grappling hooks used to fend off the photographers.

One of the grappling hooks used to fend off the photographers.

Mr. Kumaritišvili’s lifeless body was moved quickly to an ambulance (the crash happened mere feet from the WSC Medic and ambulance), which whisked him a few kilometers to the helipad, which flew him 7km south to the Whistler Athlete’s Village, where a state of the art, full-service hospital had been constructed. We all knew he was dead. It is rare for people to survive a crash at those speeds (143.6 km/h at the moment of impact) in a safety-tested vehicle with airbags and a seatbelt. As time went by and nothing was announced, some thought this was good news, but I knew they were just trying to contact family and get their stories straight.

Some discussed that during training competitions, many sliders hold their sled to their chest to warm the skis so that they can go faster (something that many sliders were doing on this day). During competition, warming blades against your body is forbidden, as the temperature of the skis is measured post-slide to the hundredths of a degree to ensure fairness. In a sport (one of only two in the Winter Olympics) that is measured to the thousandths of a second, little details like this are not overlooked.

The International Luge Federation (FIL) blamed the crash on Mr. Kumaritišvili and not on any “deficiencies of the track.” They said that Mr. Kumaritišvili “did not compensate properly to make the correct entrance” into the fatal curve and reiterated that Mr. Kumaritišvili’s death “was not caused by an unsafe track.” But in the next moment they took the extreme measures of:

  • Shortening the course by 190 yards (to slow the speeds).
  • Banking the final curve (16) higher
  • Adding a small, wooden wall past curve 16
  • Tying small cushions to the metal support poles
  • Adjusting the ice profile to direct the lugers to stay on the course
  • Monitoring the ice temperatures even more closely than they had before to control speeds.
  • This does not line up. Either the W.S.C. is a safe track and the luger made a mistake (in which case, why change the course at all?), or the track was not safe, and the luger made a mistake. In this case, corrective measures on the track would need to be taken (which is exactly what happened). However, no one at the WSC or FIL has accepted any responsibility. An FIL official did, however say that he had met with Russian organizers and is confident a slower track would be constructed for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

    Whistler Sliding Center Map

    Whistler Sliding Center Map

    I think of the sliding track itself. Crashes are certainly considered a normal part of luge (and bobsled and skeleton, for that matter). Most sports carry some inherent risk. But it is very important to note that this sport is relatively new—the first Olympics to carry luge as an event was in 1964 (though skeleton is much more in its infancy, having just been incorporated into the 2002 Winter Olympics). Truthfully, of the three disciplines, while it seems like skeleton (face-first) sliding is more dangerous, luge—is the discipline with the least amount of control. There are only 15 international competition sliding tracks in the world. The WSC has the highest vertical drop from top to low point of any track in the world at 152meters, with sliders achieving over 5 G’s of force. The ice surface on the track is 2-5 centimeters thick and is maintained 18 hours a day, 7 days a week totally by hand. Underneath the track are giant tubes full of chemicals (mostly ammonia) that keep the temperatures below freezing. During test runs in 2009 at the WSC when a luger clocked a new record speed of 153.94 km/h, Josef Fendt, the FIL President said, “It makes me worry.”

    The one consolation I have heard that makes just a small bit of sense is the fact that Mr. Kumaritišvili passed on doing what he loved. I am trying to cling to that. Any sport carries an inherent risk, some decidedly more so than others. In my industry, guiding cycling trips, I often hurl myself down mountains at over 80km/h, and I have a thin tire with 120lbs of air pressure keeping me up. Not to mention vehicles, road debris, other cyclists, etc. that I need to keep in mind. I have gone down before, and have been very fortunate to escape more injury. An accident like Mr. Kumaritišvili’s gives everyone pause, like the estimate 3 billion viewers who took one minute of silence in honor of Mr. Kumaritišvili during the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games. By my math, this collectively adds up to roughly 95 years of time—quite a good length of time, if you ask me. In this life, we only get 10 decades, if we are lucky. Ten is not a very big number, so whichever number you are working on, be sure to take some time to appreciate it. If nothing else, this tragedy can be a reminder to love the day, and be grateful for each moment.

    If you’d like to follow Jacob, you can certainly do so on twitter & maybe he’ll friend you on facebook.

    My quest to become a member of Team CarboRocket may have come to an end, but the journey is just at it’s beginning.

    • Anonymous

      Friday the 5th of March, 2010at4:24 am Reply

      Wow–this was absolutely haunting. My goodness, I can't believe they aren't even taking a little bit of credit. Someone big should pick up this story. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thuters

      Sunday the 21st of March, 2010at6:25 am Reply

      I am very impressed by this journalism. Keep up the good blogging!

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