Less than three years after it was built for the 2010 Olympics, Whistler's sliding track is getting an estimated $1.7 million upgrade.
The order to do the upgrade, prompted by the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili on the opening day of the Olympics, was handed down by the international luge federation FIL — Fédération Internationale de Luge de Course — as a requirement for Whistler to host the luge 2013 World Championships in February, and any future international competitions.
But it's Canadian taxpayers footing the bill.
It's a large-scale, highly technical project that includes a new start ramp leading into a lower portion of the track, as well as a new two-storey start house, effectively cutting off the top of the track as part of the field of play for luge forever.
While the edict comes from the federation's head offices in Germany, the money to pay for the updates is coming to Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL) from a "transition fund" set up by Vancouver's Olympic Organizing Committee — VANOC.
When asked why the legacies society, which has been unable to make ends meet since it took over the local venues more than two years ago, was paying for the upgrade when FIL signed off on the original track design and then requested the new starts post-Games and post-accident, WSL president and CEO Keith Bennett paused to consider.
"That's an interesting question," he said, standing below the new start. "I mean it's our country, our track."
It is not clear in WSL's 2011 audited financial statements just how much money was part of that VANOC transition fund, or how much of it has been spent on the venues to date by the WSL. VANOC still exists in a limited role.
"I think you have to look at this from a number of perspectives," Bennett went on to say. "There are a lot of tracks in the world... there's more tracks than there are world cups and what's important for our Canadian athletes is the opportunity to train and compete at home.
"Having home-field advantage, you saw what that did in the Games for someone like (gold medal skeleton athlete) Jon Montgomery. Amazing results and I think Whistler just latched on to that, 'this is ours.' The opportunity to have a track where you can host an international competition and a world cup or world championships, like I say, it's a game-changer. They have the chance to train here. It's their field. It's their field of play. Their track. They have home-field advantage here so this is huge. And the fact that this is a fast track really sets the athletes up for competing internationally."
The other catch of course is the WSL funding, which flows in part from the Games Operating Trust — a $110 million trust set up jointly by the federal and provincial governments to fund the legacy venues in the long run. Last year WSL received $2.69 million from the trust fund, which paid for a portion of its $7.5 million in operating costs.
When asked if WSL did a business case to justify the million plus spend on the track, Bennett said simply:
"This is what we do."
He went on to suggest that if the track could not host the highest-level luge competitions, WSL's primary source of funding could be in jeopardy.
"Our funding from the Games Operating Trust is contingent really on high performance sport and developing sport," said Bennett. "That's what it's all about and that's what the facilities are really all about too.
"We have certain obligations around our funding and that is to maintain the field of play at international standards."
But like the hairpin turns of the $109 million track," touted as the "fastest track in the world, the upgrades too have been challenging though inevitable following Kumaritashvili's fatal accident.
"That changed the scope of the legacy of this venue dramatically," admitted Walter Corey, high performance director for the Canadian Luge Association as well as the liaison between the venue and the international luge federation.
"What we're at now is the result of the better part of two and half years, almost, of debates on where the best place was to put in a new start."
Upgrading the sliding track, said Corey, is a "mammoth political undertaking." But with all parties on board, the difficult part of the job now lies with the logistics of connecting a new start ramp seamlessly to the icy raceway.
Below Corner Six of the massive venue carved into the side of Blackcomb Mountain, a steep, straightaway running parallel to the track is now under construction — exposed steel rebar criss-crosses the foundation, setting the groundwork for the pipes that will carry ammonia to the refrigeration plant. Concrete work will follow and then ultimately the ice.
Corey was there on Feb. 12, 2010 when Kumaritashvili flew out of his slide in the final turn during a training run on opening day of the Games. He was going an estimated 145 km/hr. It triggered a multi-level response.
The response from the luge governing body was swift.
The original men's start was moved from the top down the track to the women's start point below Curve 2. The women's luge and men's doubles were then moved to the junior start at Curve 5.
Walking down the concrete track this week at the make-do start at Corner 5, Tracy Seitz, general manager of The Whistler Sliding Centre, pointed to the issues with the hurried Olympic changes.
"They enter the curve as such an angle that they climb up the wall and then they skid down," he said. "There were a few athletes that were able to manage this little trick here but most of them couldn't.
"For the Olympics that made the winner and the loser."
A small metal shipping container is the make-do start house for the women's and doubles, a far cry from the original men's start house at the top of the track, grand enough to host weddings post-Games.
The $1.7 million upgrades include a new start house that Bennett described as "a little more frugal than that."
This will be the start for the women's, doubles and the new Olympic relay event. The men's luge will continue to slide from below Corner 2.
The other spin-off for WSL is that there will be a new upgraded venue and start for the public bobsleigh program — one more in keeping with the price tourists are paying to ride the track.
The ramp work was originally scheduled to finish in October in time for Canadian luge training. That has since been moved back as work is behind schedule. Canadian athletes will now skip the World Cup in Latvia to come to Whistler to train before Christmas. The two-storey start house, which will be 1,000 square feet on the top level, will not be finished in time for the World Championships.
Despite the delays, and the challenges of the past years, it all points one way, according to Corey.
"We are getting to the point where this facility from a performance perspective is going to be a factory to produce champions, without a doubt," he said.
"The path to success comes from Whistler."
WSL gets more funding from province
The province is coming to the WSL's rescue once again, this time with $2.7 million in funding received last month.
"Yes we have received confirmation of funding from the province of $2.7 M in total for the next three years," said Bennett. "We are grateful for the province's commitment to the legacy facilities in Whistler and helping Whistler Sport Legacies preserve and build on the legacies of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games."
The province has contributed $6.2 million in funding to the WSL in the last two fiscal years in addition to the $2.7 million — $2 million for operating costs in 2012 and 2011 and a further $1.6 million for capital investments. It is not clear where the remainder was spent and what capital investments were covered.
The first WSL annual audited financial statements were released this summer.
Track safety audit coming next month
Recommendations from the Whistler Sliding Centre safety audit will be released next month.
The safety audit is one of the recommendations made by the B.C. Coroner's Service following the death of luger Kumaritashvili.
The audit, done by the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), is a top-to-bottom safety study of the Olympic track.
Patricia Leslie, director with WSL, said the findings would be made public at the end of October. She also reiterated that the safety audit is not connected to the new starts for luge or the new start house upgrades.
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