Debate within bobsled over Olympic track's safety

Updated: February 20, 2010, 11:50 PM ET
Associated Press

WHISTLER, British Columbia -- The sledders all agree: the Olympic track is fast -- the fastest there is and likely ever will be. Where they differ is just how furious it is.

The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and more crashes since at Whistler -- including four on Saturday night alone as bobsled competition began -- have opened an emotional debate among sliders.

Negotiating the course's 16 icy bends excites many but makes others anxious. Some teams complain it is dangerous.

The pressure of Olympic competition only ups the ante. So, too, does the fact that some pilots have scarcely any experience on the track, the world's fastest.

The most outspoken pilot has been Shauna Rohbock, the 2006 silver medalist who called the Whistler Sliding Center "stupid fast."

The federation that runs bobsled says its goal was for all pilots to have at least 40 runs before they compete. Many have, but some have had fewer than half that.

Czech pilot Jan Vrba, entered in four-man, never drove on Whistler before the Vancouver Games, and Serbian four-man pilot Vuk Radjenovic went down just four times, according to FIBT records. Australian pilot Jeremy Rolleston, who crashed Saturday, made just eight training runs before the games, federation records show. The same was true for Liechtenstein's Michael Klingler, who also crashed.

British pilot John Jackson had bloody scrapes underneath both of his shoulder blades from a high-speed drag along the ice while he was still stuck inside the overturned chassis of his sled.

"I can't wear my race jersey," Jackson said, "because my back is stinging."

Whistler is also sharpening debate among bobsledders about what constitutes a good track. Some feel the other 15 artificial tracks around the world include some that are too easy, favoring pilots with fast push-starts and fast sleds but not necessarily the best driving technique. To many, Whistler is welcome because it puts a premium on driver skills.

They also add that the course must be tough if the Olympics is to be the pinnacle of the sport.

"You hear a lot of horror stories about this track, but once you go down, it's like, whew! Yeah, it is fast and it is difficult, but it's not like terrifying," Belgium driver Elfje Willemsen said. Before this week, she had ridden this track just 19 times, according to federation records.

"You are hanging out at the top ready to vomit because this is such an intense track," USA-3 driver Bree Schaaf said. "But that's just going to make for an exciting games. ... It's going to be an incredible race."

Romania driver Carmen Radenovic added: "It's my favorite track. I don't know. I feel good, I don't know why. I was in love with this track from first time."

Asked if she liked the speed, she gushed, her voice rising with every word: "Yes. Yes! Yes! I like very much."

Some teams voiced concerns about safety at a meeting Friday with race officials. The head of the Swiss team, Markus Wasser, said in an interview that high speeds and gravitational forces at the bottom of the track give pilots no time to correct driving errors.

The team withdrew driver Daniel Schmid for what it called "safety reasons" after two crashes in training. Swiss gold medal favorite Beat Hefti also withdrew from two-man with a concussion following a crash on Wednesday.

For luge, speeds were slowed when the start was moved lower down the track after Kumarishtavili's death on Feb. 12.

IOC president Jacques Rogge, in an interview with The Associated Press, promised Saturday to do "everything in my power" to prevent a repeat of the crash and said the International Olympic Committee will work with the luge federation to "take all the steps that might be needed" to avoid another tragedy at future games.

"We are risk-conscious, definitely," he said.

In Friday's bobsled meeting, "there was lots of coaches talking about how dangerous this track is, we've got to re-cut it, we've got to slow it down," said Tom De-La-Hunty, who competed in bobsled for Britain at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and now coaches the Netherlands team.

"If it's too fast, go home. Go and get married and have some children," he said. "So much of this is driven by the coaches, the individual coaches bleating, whining and moaning at meetings and instilling this fear in their own athletes."

"You don't have to participate," British pilot Paula Walker said. "It's the Olympic Games, not a bob school."

Rohbock said Friday night, when freezing temperatures helped make the ice especially hard and fast, that speeds in the final turns push the boundaries of what she thought she could handle.

"I think they went a little overboard on this track," she said. "Your brain almost can't catch up with what your hands need to do. I think at some point it's going to exceed that and that's when problems will happen."

In early 2008, Rohbock was one of several top drivers invited by officials to test-drive the track. Even then, she said, she believed problems could arise.

"We voiced that concern, and they just thought it would be OK," Rohbock said. "But I think now they are realizing that it's not going to be OK."

It was not clear to whom Rohbock relayed her concerns. The federation met regularly with pilots during testing to hear their feedback about the track, federation spokesman Don Krone said.

"We don't necessarily listen to the chatter that's out there -- largely it has to be substantiated by the federations," said Tim Gayda, vice president of sport for the Vancouver organizing committee.

He said the federation had not made a formal request for any changes to the track, but "we'll do whatever they ask of us."

After more training Saturday, Rohbock tempered her criticism, saying: "For the most part, I feel safe -- as long as I don't crash."

Asked in an interview about Rohbock's comments, federation president Bob Storey said: "She always has something to say.

"She said the same thing about other tracks .... It's in her nature," he said. "In general, we're hearing from our athletes that it's a great track, a fair track -- it's an Olympic challenge."

While all the other drivers agree the track is super-quick, none has been as outspoken as Rohbock.

The AP spoke to 13 other women pilots -- out of a total field of 21 -- after the first round of official training Saturday. Only one, American Erin Pac, said she didn't feel safe on the ice.

But Pac also said that while the course is "definitely a challenge," speed is "part of the sport." She said she had no reservations about competing on the track.

"I have not made it through the 50-50 once yet clean," said Pac, referring to the area around Curve 13 that picked up the dicey moniker last year after a number of men's sleds crashed around that point.

"Every time it's a huge struggle for me," she went on. "The track has been different every time we've come here, and you just have to relearn how to get through there and I clearly have not learned it yet."

Canada-1 pilot Kaillie Humphries said slider mistakes on the course will "bite you in the butt for sure."

"But I could list off any track that has at least one or two corners that would do the exact same thing to you," she said. "I think it's no different than any other track. It's just the speed is something new."

Three German pilots did not speak to AP but through a team spokeswoman said they had no concerns about the track.

One idea bobsled officials contemplated to slow sleds in competition was using coarse sandpaper to scuff the runners of the sleds. Rohbock voiced support for such a measure, but Krone said Saturday the idea was dropped after other teams showed little appetite for it. Using coarse paper would have been a telltale indication that officials and teams are concerned about excessive speeds.

Instead, fine-grain paper will be used -- as it is in other races to make sure teams haven't coated their runners with substances that would make them run faster and give them an unfair advantage.

Rohbock said Saturday that all the talk about the track is mentally exhausting.

"You run the track through your head a million times. I didn't go to bed till 3:30 and it was the worst night of sleep," she said. "Even for the brakemen, to have them have horrible nights, their minds are running as well now that the drivers are just going crazy because they're thinking about every curve."

As she spoke, a Russian sled crashed, and scraped and bumped to the end of the track.

"Uh-oh" Rohbuck said.

The Russians were unhurt.

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AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds, Anne M. Peterson, Tom Withers and Stephen Wilson and AP National Writer David Crary contributed to this report.


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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