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Safety for sliders at heart of $800,000 audit

Whistler Sport Legacies to meet all recommendations at sliding centre

The outgoing president and CEO of Whistler Sport Legacies said the $800,000 safety audit on the fastest track in the world will be a game-changer for sliding sports.

Paid for with leftover funds from the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Games (VANOC), the same monies that are currently underwriting a $1.7 million upgrade to the track, the safety audit is "good value" according to Keith Bennett.

"It's a significant step forward to how any other track in the world is managed," said Bennett, who is retiring in less than three weeks. "It's a significant step up in these sports. We're committed to doing this as part of our continuing safety practices and for us, I would say, yes, it's a game changer."

The report details 40 recommendations with the ultimate goal of improving athlete safety. The audit comes out of recommendations in the BC Coroner's report on the death of 21-year-old Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre on the opening day of the 2010 Olympic Games.

More than half, 29 recommendations, are aimed at Whistler's track operations.

Bennett said Whistler Sport Legacies (WSL) will be implementing all 29 of those recommendations, and it will help the international sliding federations meet the remaining 11 recommendations.

Included is a recommendation that WSL install the standard safety barrier system at all corners and locations along the length of the track where there is no control on the free flowing path of the sled.

A lot of the work on safety barriers has been done in the last two years, said Bennett.

"Significant safety barriers have been put up right from day one but they've been augmented over the years, particularly over the last two years as we've taken over the track," he said. "It has been taken care of but it's part of our continuous monitoring process that if we see anything or observe anything that might indicate we need more safety barriers, we'll do that immediately."

Another recommendation is to create a more stable line from corner 12 until the entry of corner 13 including lessening the impact of the designed bump put in place as a feature to challenge the sliders.

"They recommended that we move it," said Bennett. "We've done that."

The safety audit also addresses processes and safety training at the Whistler Sliding Centre, specifically developing a protocol for incident reporting and implementing automated record keeping of all incidents.

WSL has invested in an electronic track management system that covers track policies and procedures, competency of workers, and incident reporting, among other things.

When asked how much the recommendations have cost Whistler Sport Legacies, which has relied on millions in stop-gap funding from the province for the past two years with more promised for the next three years, Bennett explained that much has been covered in annual operational expenditures.

As for the international federations in charge of bobsleigh, skeleton and luge — FIBT and FIL — 11 recommendations are laid out in the audit for them.

Those include, among other things, providing more detailed track design criteria beyond top speeds and G- force exposure to guide track designers, and that the federations develop formal criteria defining an athlete's competence to compete on a specific track. Kumaritashvili had only tackled the Whistler track a handful of times before his fatal run.

"We've offered our full support to the international sliding federations for the implementation of the remaining audit recommendations," added Bennett.

In a press release Svein Romstad, secretary general for the International Luge Federation (FIL) confirmed their continued commitment to working with the sliding centre: "We welcome the report and take it seriously as athletes' safety is of utmost importance for us," he said.

"The recommendations contained in the Safety Audit reflect the direction that our organization is already heading in. In fact, we have already implemented some of the advice and follow-up on the other recommendations is work in progress."

For example, some of the key findings in the trajectory study found that in the four-man bobsleigh there were 23 scenarios where the maximum predicted G-forces exceeded FIBT's guidelines.

"The modelling indicates that and so what the federations have told us is that they're going to be doing testing throughout this next season to actually compare the modelling to the actual times of four-man bobsleigh in particular, and two man," said Patricia Leslie, communications manager at WSL. "And they're going to do that testing, we were told, throughout all the tracks on the World Cup circuit."

The 350-page safety audit, which provides a technical analysis of the world's fastest track, was done by Calgary's SAIT Polytechnic. It took 18 months with experts from around the world, with 3D modelling of the track at Leeds University in England.

Terry Wright, a former executive vice president for VANOC who remains on contract for final wrap up, stated: "We're pleased to have helped facilitate the Safety Audit recommended by the B.C. Coroner, as well as other track enhancements already in place.

"These measures help ensure the Whistler Sliding Centre remains an outstanding venue for recreational and elite athletes. Our hope is that the Safety Audit, which arose out of a tragic accident, results in an enhanced legacy of safety for all athletes participating in these sports."

In addition to the $800,000 study, VANOC has funded other post-Games projects in Whistler. It is currently paying $1.7 million in track upgrades for a new luge start, which will be operational for the 2013 Luge World Championships in February. It also covered a $350,000 kitchen upgrade at the Whistler Athletes' Centre in the summer.

Bennett was pleased to deliver the safety audit before retiring on Dec. 21. His successor has not yet been named.

"I think it's a huge milestone," he said. "I think this will help guarantee the legacy of this facility. This is an amazing facility. We want to see it live on and give our athletes the opportunity to train on one of the best tracks in the world and succeed in what they're doing."