The headline in the February issue of Wired wasn't one a person would normally expect to see in the technology magazine: "Whistler's deadly bobsled track opens for business."
Billed as the fastest track in the world, the Whistler Sliding Centre this winter opened for recreational bobsleigh, to drum up interest in the sport and raise additional funds for the $105-million facility that is critical to Canada's future in sliding sports.
The spectre of crashes hangs over the B.C. track, which is now a regular stop for sliding World Cups since the 2010 Winter Olympics. The danger element is bluntly stated in the Wired headline, and the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in training before the Vancouver Games is mentioned in the first paragraph.
Crashes are a regular occurrence in sliding sports. Canadian bobsled pilot Chris Spring was in a harrowing one last month in Germany, where he and his three crew members were lucky to escape more fearsome injuries than the ones they sustained, which included broken bones.
Whistler has established itself as a formidable venue on an international circuit that numbers less than 20 destinations around the world.
"It's a tough track, it's a technical track, it's a fast track," says Don Wilson, chief executive officer of Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton. "Some athletes absolutely love it. Some athletes are not as comfortable."
Canadian bobsleigh is in a challenging spot. It is losing its long-time title sponsor, credit card company Visa Inc., whose support for the team ends at the conclusion of the season. On the ice, the team works towards the 2014 Sochi Olympics, with veterans such as star driver Pierre Lueders retired and now coaching, and younger athletes rising to fill those roles.
This weekend at Whistler, pilot Justin Kripps makes his World Cup debut in two-man on Friday, and four-man on Saturday. The former brakeman for Lueders, Kripps was in the sled when the duo made the first official run at Whistler on Dec. 23, 2007, beginning from the midway novice start. They reached 123 kilometres an hour – which is what tourists willing to pay for the experience can expect to hit.
"It's fast," Kripps says of the Whistler track. "But that's what makes it exciting."
Veterans are delivering again for Canada at the Whistler World Cup.
Mellisa Hollingsworth won the women's skeleton event Thursday, Kaillie Humphries and Emily Baadsvik won gold and Helen Upperton and Shelley-Ann Brown took bronze in women's bobsleigh.
The team's 2010 Olympic performance was its best ever – one gold, one silver and one bronze – tying the sport's perennial power, Germany, for most bobsleigh medals. Sochi, Russia, will be tougher, because Canada won't have all the extra time to get familiar with the track.
"Absolutely, [Whistler]was a high water mark," Wilson says. "The simple answers is we'll all be at a – quote unquote – disadvantage, because it's a new track. We've got some very talented athletes that are focused on continuing the tradition."
The money, Wilson hopes, will come.
"Right now, corporate Canada is heavily focused on London [the 2012 Summer Olympics]and we're hoping once that's finished companies will look at the properties that are winter focused," says Wilson, who says the sliding athletes are "a commodity most Canadians companies would like to be associated with."