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The Luge – Designing for and Owning the Risks

The Organizers of the luge event have been quick to place the blame for the death of 21 year old Georgian, Nodar Kumaritashvili. While it is easy to see that an athlete travelling at over 140km/hr wearing a helmet as the only protection may be taking significant risks, I’d contend that it is the event organizer’s responsibility to make the course as safe as possible, particularly as the speeds increase. But apparently, despite being limited to 14% of the training runs of the Canadian team (40 as opposed to 300), on a course described as the fastest in the world, the officials are satisfied that it is his own fault. I’d be interested to see if there are claims of criminal negligence from this event, particularly aimed at the course designer and architects, as well as the organizers.

But speeds aren’t the only issue. There are serious questions regarding the pole Kumaritashvili hit. Maybe pads would not have saved his life, but it’s a question which still has to be flushed out.

Read More: Calgary Herald – Luge events suspended in Whistler

Having seen the footage, it seems unlikely that pads would have saved his life. 140km/hr to 0 in a fraction of a second. If the poles had not been there at all, now that is a different matter, he may have survived.

In a recent interview with CTVOlympics.ca, the architect, Laurenz Kosichek [of Stantec Architects in Vancouver], admitted he was more a designer of office towers and airports. “I knew as much about bobsled, luge, as probably any average person does, which was next to nothing,” Kosichek said. “Luckily, I think I’m a pretty quick study.”

Read more: NY Daily – Nodar Kumaritashvili dies in vain if IOC doesn’t make changes to ‘deadly’ events

The course design was prepared by the same man who has designed previous Olympic tracks, with the design, detailing and construction oversight brought to reality by Stantec Architects. Professionals are expected to step into specific design roles that they may have little experience in, but there is almost always enough information in the form of existing design and standards to base professional judgement on, and in the case of engineers, it is against the code of ethics to practice a field of engineering that you do not have competency in. Again, I don’t know the particular issues surrounding this design, but it points to the importance of designing with extreme risks, often beyond code requirements, in mind.

There’s a bunch of conflicting information out there, but simple risk management principles would suggest that an audit of safety on the track, incorporating the locations of all accidents on the track, should be undertaken. Considering the track was designed mathematically for a top speed of 137km/hr and speeds of 155 are expected, perhaps there is an error in the design or construction?

The governing body say no fault was found with the track and the competition will take place as scheduled at 1700 local time today (0100GMT tomorrow), with training runs resuming prior to that…

…The Canadians chose to deny training time at the newly built track to foreign sliders to keep an advantage for their own  team. The track had seen a world record speed of 95.68mph set in competition at the one event on it last winter but that speed was being exceeded in training this week.

The final turn was so hard for lugers to navigate that it was reconfigured last year after a spate of bad accidents there.

But crashes were still common this week in training, with a Romanian woman helicoptered to hospital on Thursday.

Adam Rosen, 25, Britain’s only luger here, crashed on his first day of training over the course last October, injuring himself so badly that he could not compete for three months. He said after one training run this week, where he broke 92mph: ‘It’s crazy to go that fast.’…

…The technical officials of the FIL were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.

‘Based on these findings the race director, in consultation with the FIL, made the decision to reopen the track following a raising of the walls at the exit to curve 16 and are changing the ice profile.

Read more: Daily Mail

Whatever the cause, this tragedy represents the first death of an athlete at the winter games, and occurred in training, before competition had even begun. The organizers should be prepared to accept that there may be many factors pointing to this incident occurring, most of them things they would rather not admit. However, full transparency is key to maintaining trust.

The Olympics should be above politics, but is this just the tipping point for an organization that has turned the act of sporting achievement into a carnival of corporate excess, where the spectacle of entertainment is more important than the sport, where the Canadian government goes to any length to Own the Podium. A few weeks ago, when the Torch came through town, I felt the whole event was sullied by the corporate machine and the obvious cost of the show, but with a death comes not just financial responsibility for the games for all of Canada, but moral as well. Is this the sort of games we really wanted?

Mike Thomas is a Civil Engineer living in the Interior of British Columbia. At one stage he was a ski patroller at Canada Olympic Park, the home of the Calgary 1988 Olympics and responded to several accidents on the sliding track. He now lives far from the excitement of Vancouver and the Olympics, and writes about Engineering Design, Urban Planning, Sustainability and events of interest in British Columbia. Thanks for visiting! You can subscribe to this site in a feed reader or by email.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

One thought on “The Luge – Designing for and Owning the Risks

  1. Back in September the NYTime ran an article about the lack of access for foreign athletes to the Vancouver sites; and how, for the sliding centre, it breached a gentlemen’s agreement dating back to Lake Placid in 1980. Read more here.
    To what lengths to “Own the Podium”?

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