UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 9:53am
WHISTLER, British Columbia — An Olympic luge athlete injured in a crash at the Whistler Sliding Centre in November warned Canadian officials about safety hazards at the track months before a competitor was killed last week at the Vancouver Games in an accident on the same course.
Werner Hoeger, who competed in the Turin and Salt Lake Games for Venezuela, said he lost consciousness and sustained a concussion during a botched training run on Nov. 13 after his sled caromed off an opening in the wall near the women’s start ramp. His injury most likely prevented him from attempting to qualify for the Olympics, he said. In a volley of letters and e-mail messages sent to Canadian and international luge officials since his crash, Hoeger warned that the track was unsafe and raised the same issues — including a lack of access to practice runs — now being debated after Nodar Kumaritashvili of the Republic of Georgia died on Friday.
Hoeger was experienced — he competed in the past two Winter Games — but he was not a medal contender. His highest World Cup ranking was 52nd. At age 56, he was trying to become the oldest competitor in these Games. Kumaritashvili was young and inexperienced. At age 21, he was ranked 44th in the World Cup standings this season. He had completed 26 runs on the course at Whistler. The Canadian team’s luge athletes made an average of 250 runs.
Hoeger and athletes from other nations with small, underfinanced luge teams said Canadian officials were not sympathetic to their requests for additional practice time even as evidence mounted that the track was faster and more challenging than originally designed.
“For the smaller nations, there should have been more,” said Ioan Apostol, a former Olympic luge athlete from Romania who is the director of development for the International Luge Federation. “It is very fast and very technical at the same time.” He added that he petitioned Canadian officials for extra runs at the course for the athletes he oversees. His division provides coaching and financial assistance to countries without strong luge teams, including Georgia.
Olympic host countries have traditionally guarded access to their tracks in the hopes of establishing home-course advantage, but some said what set the Canadians apart was their reluctance to grant extra time to developing athletes unlikely to challenge them for medals. Meanwhile, athletes were attaining unprecedented speeds on the Whistler track. Designed for speeds of 137 kilometers per hour, or 85 miles per hour, the track was delivering speeds beyond 153 k.p.h., or 95 m.p.h.
The Canadians’ position was all the more frustrating, the athletes said, because they had granted extra training runs to the powerful Russian team as part of a reciprocal arrangement in advance of the Sochi Games in 2014.
“There’s two groups of people: there’s the haves and the have-nots,” said Rubén González, 47, a member of the Argentine luge team who finished in last place in the men’s singles luge competition Sunday. “You know that going in.”
John Gibson, a spokesman for the Whistler Sliding Centre, said in an e-mail message that those who run the site have gone out of their way to allow athletes to train there, and an international luge official said the Canadians were within the rules for providing access to the track. “We have actually surpassed the requirements set forth by the international sport federations in terms of athlete access,” Gibson said.
A spokesman for the Canadian Luge Association declined to comment, but officials have said in the past that athletes have received almost three times the number of training runs than were offered in the run-up to the Turin Games in 2006.
Hoeger, who was born in Venezuela and moved to the United States when he was 16, was hoping to qualify for the Vancouver Games and become the oldest competitor at this year’s Games. He is a former kinesiology professor at Boise State University and has written several textbooks on fitness.
His training was stalled in the fall of 2008, when he injured an ankle while training at the Lake Placid course. He did not recuperate from the injury in enough time to participate in international training at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Requests for makeup runs were denied.
Hoeger returned to Whistler last February for training. After attempting to learn the course systematically from easier, lower starting points, then progressing to the harder starts, Hoeger said officials instructed him to make his seventh run from the most challenging, men’s start.
Hoeger refused, saying doing so “would be suicidal” because he had not yet learned the course.
“I knew the track was extremely difficult,” said Hoeger, whose highest World Cup ranking was 52nd. “I had heard enough horror stories. Every athlete treats this track with the utmost respect. Nearly every athlete is scared to death of this track.”
He returned a final time in November 2009 for the designated international training session. On his fourth run from the men’s start, he crashed because he said a barricade was not in place to prevent his sled from hitting the entrance ramp at the women’s start. He believes he lost consciousness between Curves 2 and 3 and says he has no memory of traveling through Curves 3, 4 and 5 before coming to rest at Curve 6, about a third of the way down the course.
Medical officials transported Hoeger by ambulance to the Whistler Health Care Centre. Hoeger said he sustained a third-grade concussion and still deals with lightheadedness and a loss of balance.
The same day, officials sent a notice to athletes that the barricade “will be in place whenever men’s start is in use.”
“There should have been a wall up,” González said. “It’s not mandatory. Sometimes they put it up. Sometimes they don’t. It’s stupid that it isn’t mandatory on every track.” González said he felt safe on the track at Whistler.
Hoeger noted that although his accident was not as severe as the one that caused Kumaritashvili’s death, officials reacted similarly. “After the fact, they decided they were going to put up the wall,” Hoeger said. “These are the luge experts. They should know and understand the sport.”
Vancouver organizers and luge officials have said Kumaritashvili’s accident was caused by his errors and not by “deficiencies in the track.” They said they made changes to the course the next day in part to reassure athletes that it was safe.
Hoeger’s chafing over the November accident and previous lack of access to the track escalated into a series of exchanges between him and officials from the International Olympic Committee, the international luge federation, the Vancouver organizing committee and the Canadian Luge Association. At one point, Hoeger’s lawyer, Bryan Storer, also exchanged messages with officials. In an interview, Storer said Hoeger had not decided whether to sue.
Hoeger began the correspondence, copies of which he provided to The New York Times, after he was not allowed to make up training sessions. “I knew I was done after the crash,” Hoeger said of his goal to make the Vancouver Games. “I knew there was no way I would get back on the sled. I wanted to know why.”
He demanded that Ed Moffat of Canada be removed as race director for luge at the Olympics, that all athletes be offered equal runs in the future, that Canada forfeit the surplus runs negotiated for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and that the Canadian Luge Association be reprimanded for unethical actions and failing to provide a safe sliding environment.
“I have to question the integrity of the Canadian Luge Association and the fairness of the next Olympic Games to be held on Canadian soil,” he wrote in a November letter to Moffat.
In a letter responding to Hoeger’s demands, Svein Romstad, secretary general of the international luge federation, said that Moffat had acted with integrity, that the Canadians had the right to enter into training arrangements with other teams, and that they had followed all international luge rules. His request for make-up runs, Romstad wrote, could “only be defined as special treatment if it had been granted.”
Although Apostol said extra runs were eventually granted, they were scheduled for a week in January when most of his athletes were busy competing in events in Europe and could not afford to travel to Whistler. He said he was drafting a proposal to allow more runs for less experienced teams and to limit speeds on future tracks.
“They made it really inconvenient,” said Michelle Despain Hoeger, Werner Hoeger’s daughter-in-law, who competed in luge for Argentina in 2006. She narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics this year.
Romstad said the Canadians granted requests for additional training time after it became clear that athletes were attaining speeds in excess of 137 k.p.h, or 85 m.p.h., the original estimate of the track’s maximum speed. “In recognition of that, we did get extra training for the totality of the athletes that were available to participate in all of the training that we offered,” Romstad said.
He said the training in January was set aside for athletes from unseeded teams, with the intent of giving less experienced competitors additional time to train. But ultimately, allocating track time is the responsibility of the Canadians, he said.
“The F.I.L. does not own the track,” he said.
Although Romstad said he sympathized with athletes like Hoeger and others, “I have to go with what is right and wrong within our rules,” he said.