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Deadly Olympic sliding track undergoes changes

The Whistler Sliding Centre will forever be remembered - and scarred - by the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili in a training run before last February's Olympics.

But the $119-million facility begins the legacy phase of its life cycle next weekend with a bobsleigh and skeleton World Cup, the first competition on the 1.45-kilometre track since the Games. Another step could come in January, when the centre is expected to receive provincial approval for a "public sport experience program," which will allow members of the public to slide down the track for a fee, and after a training session in bobsleigh or skeleton. Luge is not being offered.

"I don't think people in this village will ever forget [Kumaritashvili]" said Keith Bennett, chief executive of Whistler Sport Legacies, which inherited the centre from the Olympic organizing committee. "His memory will live on here."

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His legacy does too. Bennett's group has made structural changes to the track to make it less prone to crashes, and the FIL, the world governing body for luge, is expected to introduce new qualification criteria for future Olympics.

It is believed FIL will propose increasing the number of training weeks to three from two before an Olympics, and requiring that competitors complete 10 accident-free runs before being allowed to participate.

Meanwhile, Whistler Sport Legacies has made some subtle changes to the concrete profiles in corners 12 through 14, the turns that precede the final corner, where Kumaritashvili lost his life. Bobsleigh and skeleton athletes say they've noticed the changes, and while Canadian lugers have been practising on the track, they won't compete on it until next season.

Skeleton's Melissa Hollingsworth said she still hasn't mastered the new contour, but that the turn is slower. "I'm smashing the wall," she said. "But is it a dangerous line? No, not at all."

Gold medalist Jon Montgomery said the modifications are so subtle that he hasn't noticed any difference other than a few extra inches of track to correct mistakes. Fellow Olympic champion Kaillie Humphries, a bobsleigh pilot, said the corner is not slower in her sled, but there is greater margin for error.

"It will help with the confidence of the athletes who don't have a lot of runs," she said of the sequence where bobsleds were routinely flipping during the Games. "If that's what it took, than I'm happy."

Bennett said two roll-over barricades have been extended, that puck-board and backing have been added to some walls, and that padding covers 11 poles near the finish line. Some of those precautions were erected overnight after Kumaritashvili's accident, and have since been reinforced and made permanent.

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Bennett also said that his organization intends on heeding the advice of a B.C. coroner's report released last month, and will undertake a safety audit. He said officials from the FIBT, the governing body of bobsleigh and skeleton, have inspected the track and found no issue prior to next week's World Cup, and that the audit will proceed in the new year.

"We definitely plan to comply," he said, adding that the audit could be complete by mid-2011. "That will help us rebuild confidence in the track."

Bennett is also trying to finalize regulation with the B.C. Safety Authority to begin public runs in the new year, a key element for generating future revenues. The track requires an "amusement ride contractors licence," the same certificate needed by operators of roller-coasters.

"It hasn't been done in a lot of places, and I think B.C. is a little more regulated," Bennett said. "It's a well thought out program that is safe."

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About the Author
B.C. sports correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Matthew spearheads the Globe's sports coverage in B.C., and spends most of his time with the NHL Canucks and CFL Lions. He has worked for four dailies and TSN since graduating from Carleton University's School of Journalism a decade ago, and has covered the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Grey Cups, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the NBA Finals. More

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