Accident 'like a death in the family': VANOC's Furlong

By TED WYMAN, QMI Agency

The moment is forever etched in the memory of former Vancouver Olympic Committee CEO John Furlong.

We could be talking about the Sidney Crosby goal that capped Canada’s most successful Olympics, Joannie Rochette’s inspiring performance or any of the other gold medals in an eminently memorable fortnight last February.

But while Furlong revels in each of those moments like so many Canadians, he remains haunted by an incident that occurred before the opening ceremonies, one year ago Saturday.

“It was like a death in the family,” Furlong explained in a wide-ranging interview Thursday.

“There was no call I’ve ever had like it. It was like I had been told that my son had been in this terrible accident.”

Furlong was referring to the tragic death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili at the Whistler Sliding Centre. The Georgian athlete was killed after losing control of his sled and flying off the track into an unprotected steel support pole.

The accident cast a pall on the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and left Furlong in the unenviable position of having to be part grief counsellor, part cheerleader as the Games he had worked on producing for so many years finally got underway.

“I’ve never had a moment like it,” said Furlong, who will be in Winnipeg next week for a public speaking engagement and who is promoting a new book called Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics that Changed a Country. “Never been put in a position like it. At first, I sat there not knowing what to do but then started to think about what the expectations of the country would be and to try to somehow show a dignified and empathetic response.”

The pain of that day a year ago will no doubt be relived by many as the anniversary of the Games comes and goes. Furlong has been dealing with it continually and lately has had to answer hard questions about the safety of the luge track.

It was recently revealed that Furlong expressed concern about the safety of the track a full year before the Olympics began.

Furlong said he received an e-mail about the Sochi track (2014 Olympics) from the luge federation in which they made reference to the speed of the Whistler track and how they could make sure the track in Russia was not even faster.

His e-mail response is what has some people up in arms:

“Embedded in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt. An athlete gets badly injured or worse, and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing. Our legal guys should review at least.”

Furlong says while it’s true he expressed concern, he also received assurances that the track was safe.

“The letter wasn’t even directed to us but it came to me, so I sent it to my team and I said is there something in this letter that we need to be really concerned about here and is there a suggestion here that we need to do something and if we don’t do something what would the consequences of that be,” Furlong said Thursday.

“The answer I got from our sport department and our venue department and legal department was there was nothing new to do. ‘We are doing everything with the federations right now to prepare the track so that it meets Olympic standards and it’s completely safe.’ ”

That of course proved to be untrue, although the official position from the luge federation and the B.C. coroner was that Kumaritashvili’s death was simply an accident.

“For someone to say that we knew, it’s unreasonable and unfair,” Furlong said.

“When the games started, almost a year later from this letter, we had every assurance that the track was safe and ready and I would never, nor would anyone on my team, have agreed to open it if it hadn’t been. It had to be safe. It’s a bit like saying, ‘Would we have thrown the keys to the car to our children knowing that the brakes weren’t working. Of course not.’ ”

Truth be told, there are accidents in Olympic-style sports all the time. In fact, Canadian luger Brendan Hauptman suffered a concussion when he crashed on a track in Moscow Thursday. He lost consciousness after losing control of his sled.

It was an accident that officials immediately attributed to driver error.

“Thirty-thousand times, an athlete came down that Whistler track in practice,” Furlong said. “And through all that the sports were analyzing the use and making the changes and modifications they felt were necessary to ensure the track would deliver a great experience.”

All that was marred by one terribly tragic incident.

An incident that will continue to haunt John Furlong for as long as he lives.