Reporting from Whistler, Canada — The controversy surrounding the safety of the Olympic sliding track escalated even more Thursday when some of the world's best bobsledders found the track difficult to navigate, leading to at least 11 crashes over two days of training.
Among those was gold-medal favorite Beat Hefti of Switzerland, the top-ranked two-man driver in the world. He was suffering from a severe headache and still needs medical clearance to participate in Saturday's two-man competition. His coach said he plans to take a practice run on Friday.
Meanwhile, the head of the Olympic committee from the Republic of Georgia issued a strong rebuke against the track, saying the responsibility for the accident that killed luger Nodar Kumaritashvili belongs with those who built what's being called the world's fastest track.
"I exclude the possibility that Nodar [Kumaritashvili] was not experienced enough," committee president Giorgi Natsvlishlili said in a televised interview. "From my point of view, the track was at fault."
Kumaritashvili, 21 and in his second season, was killed within sight of the finish line as he was ejected from the track at nearly 90 mph during the final training run.
Now, one week after his death, the questions far outnumber the answers. Officials from both FIL, the international luge federation, and the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee have closed ranks, insisting the track is safe and blaming pilot error for the crash. The top athletes have largely stayed on message, expressing their sadness and condolences and little more.
But the anger over the track conditions is mounting even as extra training runs are being added by the bobsled federation "out of an abundance of caution." Still, there remains one question that haunts this controversial chute of concrete and ice: Did the desire for speed outweigh the need for safety?
It's a question the luge federation may try to answer. In a statement released Thursday, the FIL said it will gather information and "determine how best to move forward." It plans to make the report public by the end of March.
The concerns over the safety of the track began before Kumaritashvili's death. The slider's father, head of Georgia's luge federation, said his son expressed fear in a phone call just before he died.
And a slider from Venezuela said he sent warning letters to luge officials warning of the dangers after he crashed in training last November and failed to qualify for his third Olympics.
Statistics provided by the track show that in the 30,477 runs of the luge, bobsled and skeleton that occurred prior to the Olympics, there were 340 rollovers that required medical attention. It leads to another question: Is 1% an acceptable level of risk?
Since higher walls were erected in the area of the crash and the start lines were lowered to ratchet down the speeds on the track, the only communication from luge and VANOC officials has been Thursday's statement. Requests to speak with officials have been rejected or ignored.
Natalie Geisenberger of Germany, the women's silver medalist, gave voice to what many people are wondering: "They had to do that one year earlier . . . not when one is dead. It's too late. They are afraid now."
Certainly there were warning signs as the track went from concept to reality.
The building and certification of an Olympic track follows a fairly standard procedure. Once a host city is awarded the Olympics and site is selected for the venue, the process of building a single refrigerated track for luge, bobsled and skeleton begins.
A designer is hired. In the case of six Olympics, that man has been Udo Gurgel, an engineer based in Frankfurt, Germany, whose work must be approved by the two sports federations and members of the Olympic organizing committee. A local contractor translates Gurgel's computer-generated design into a mile-long cement chute.
Construction of the $105-million Whistler track took two years. VANOC announced that each curve and bank was within one to three millimeters of Gurgel's blueprints.
Then came testing in March 2008 by elite athletes of all three disciplines during a certification process called homologation. During more than 200 runs, sliders reached speeds in the low 90s. Tony Bensoof, America's most decorated singles slider, called navigating the track "a handful."
Canada's Jeff Christie, a 2006 Olympian, proclaimed it "a challenging and fast track which is going to test our skills mentally, physically and technologically. Not just for Canada's athletes but for the world's best athletes."
If the word, "dangerous," was spoken, it wasn't for public record.
In approving the track, Walter Plaikner, chairman of the FIL technical committee and Italy's head coach, announced, "There is almost nothing to change."