"What happened in Whistler, what happened to the Georgian athlete," says Werner Hoeger, a two-time Olympic luger, "I thoroughly believe that the [International Luge Federation], Canadian Luge Association, and the IOC are responsible."
Hoeger is now something of his sport's Silkwood. As The New York Times reported yesterday, he had warned both the Canadian and international luge governing bodies about safety hazards at the Whistler Sliding Centre, where Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed last week. Hoeger, a former Boise State professor who represented Venezuela at the 2002 and 2006 Games, had sustained a concussion while training on the same track in November. That's only part of the story, though. Hoeger's ordeal, which dates back to a request in 2009 for make-up training runs at Whistler following an ankle injury and which was chronicled in e-mail after e-mail to luge's governing bodies, suggests a sport operating in a jurisdictional clusterfuck with a breezy disregard for both its own rules and the health of its athletes.
Hoeger has given us his correspondence with the International Luge Federation (FIL), the Canadian Luge Association, and the IOC. We begin with letters from the CLA's executive director and from its president, denying Hoeger's request for extra training time:
I was forwarded your request for extra training on the Whistler Olympic track that you sent to Wolfgang. We understand the unfortunate situation you have been put in due to your injury, but you are not the only athlete that has missed training due to injury or another circumstance. Our position has not changed on these extra training requests, we cannot allow extra training outside what is offered for all athletes. As I told you before, we have many asking for extra training due to an infinite amount of reasons, and once we say yes to one we would have to say yes to all.
The FIL and VANOC [Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games] have agreed to add extra training runs to the upcoming ITW in Whistler making the amount of runs offered 20 for that week. During this week you will be permitted to train at a lower start until the completion of Wednesday's training (8 runs). Further to this, if you qualify for the Olympic Games, but do not qualify for a World Cup, you will be permitted to take part in another training week during the month of January. With all the extra training runs requested by the FIL (above what the IRO provides) and provided by VANOC, plus the fact that VANOC is providing all the required IRO training, athletes have received almost 3 times the amount of training runs that were offered in Torino.
I am sorry that we cannot provide you what you are looking for.
Canadian Luge Association
As the President of the Canadian Luge Association, ultimately I am responsible for the decision Tim has communicated to you. I can appreciate your situation and understand the rationale for your request.
However, it does not change our position regarding international training at the Whistler track. As Tim noted, if you meet the criteria established by the FIL for additional training in January you will be invited to participate. This extra training in January is established to provide athletes such as you the opportunity to gain the experience to slide the track safely and represent the sport well.
I wish you success in your quest to qualify for the 2010 Olympics and look forward to seeing you in Whistler during the International Training Week.
Canadian Luge Association
On a track like Whistler's, trumpeted as one of the fastest in the world, training time is crucial, especially to a mid-level luger like Hoeger. (Hoeger points out that the track was homologated — certified — by a handful of elite lugers, as is customary: "The question I have is, Why do they only invite the top eight athletes in the world? They don't have the middle class. They don't have lower-level athletes. Those are the ones most likely to have problems because they don't have the skills the top athletes have.") In November, on Hoeger's first run at Whistler, he emerged from Curve 2 veering to the right. He remembers little of what happened next — only that he jerked his sled to the left, then bounced off an unprotected opening in the wall where the women's starting ramp meets the track. He was knocked unconscious and came to roughly 150 yards later, his head bouncing on the ice. Later that afternoon, a barricade was installed at the opening. "This track had been certified," Hoeger says. "That should've been identified as a trouble spot. It should've had a barricade. The fact that the barricade was built in the first place is an indication that it was needed. The bobsled federation, the skeleton federation — they required that the barricade be in place at all times. The luge federation did not. Common sense is, sleds are sled — bobsleds, skeleton, luge." On Nov. 24, Hoeger wrote the following e-mail to Ed Moffat, CLA president.
Mr. Ed Moffat
President, Canadian Luge Association &
2010 Olympic Luge Competition Race Director
As you know on Friday, November 13, during the international luge training week in Whistler, Canada, no barricade wall had been placed at the end of the ladies' start between the ladies' start ramp and the track coming down from men's start. All things considered, prior to this point, training had gone very well. It was during my fourth training run from men's start that I brushed the right wall next to the ladies' ramp and because of the width of the track at that point (no barricade in place), instead of "siphoning" right through the track, I ended up with a concussion that was subsequently treated at a local health clinic in Whistler. Due to the seriousness of the concussion that occurred between curves 2 and 3, the attending physician at the clinic indicated that I should not train or compete for a period of 2 weeks. It is my understanding that I finally came to rest in curve 6, having no recollection of what happened in curves 3, 4, 5, and 6. Upon my return home to Boise, Idaho, USA, Dr. Karl Watts performed a follow-up exam. Today, 11 days after the accident, I still suffer from lightheadedness and a loss of balance. As a result of the concussion, I had to forfeit any additional training in Whistler, racing last week in Calgary and this week in Igls. In essence, following four additional years of financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices, my chances of qualifying for a third Olympics have all but vanished.
In this regard, I do have two questions. Number one, why wasn't the barricade put in place at the end of the ladies' ramp? If the athletes' personal safety is of utmost importance in this sport, it appears to me that it was negligence on the part of the event's organizers not to put the barricade in place for all runs from men's start. For safety reasons, it is common occurrence to have such barricades in place during international training weeks at the end of ladies' ramps. Further, I believe that common sense would have prevailed following last year's serious crash at this same spot by a Swiss slider during the World Cup event. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the barricade was safely put in place following my accident there and that another slider had a similar incident as mine but because the barricade was in place he was able to slide safely through the same spot.
Secondly, as it is well known by you, I suffered an ankle injury last year that precluded me from participating in the international training week in Whistler in November of 2008 and subsequently fully participate in the World Cup event held in Vancouver in February of this year. Despite personal services I had provided the Canadian Luge Association when such were asked of me (as a competing athlete, I was asked to serve as official interpreter at Teams Captain's meetings for three World Cup events), I was repeatedly denied by the Canadian Luge Association numerous requests for makeup training runs. In fact on July 10, 2009 Tim Farstad, Executive Director of the Canadian Luge Association indicated that: "Our position has not changed on these extra training requests, we cannot allow extra training outside what is offered for all athletes. As I told you before, we have many asking for extra training due to an infinite amount of reasons, and once we say yes to one we would have to say yes to all.' And on July 12, in your correspondence to me, you indicated that: "As the President of the Canadian Luge Association, ultimately I am responsible for the decision Tim has communicated to you." I now have to question why it is that you allowed another team from a different nation to train extensively in Whistler prior to the recent international training week in exchange for future runs on their track. If this is really what took place, 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.
Furthermore, as I have attempted to adhere to all guidelines and regulations, I have found that such are commonly broken by various entities. For instance, earlier this year the International Luge Federation (FIL) mandated systematic runs on February 13 and 14, 2009 prior to the World Cup event for all athletes who were not in Whistler for the international training week in November 2008. I planned my trip accordingly to participate in this training. I also followed up with Tim Farstad in early January to make sure that the training would in effect take place and that we would have time to make it over to Whistler on Friday February 13 following the Calgary Nations Cup on Thursday. Tim indicated that the training would take place late Friday evening to allow time for the athletes to get to Whistler. The FIL's daily schedule also showed an additional training day (ZT) in Whistler on Monday the 16. Thus I was hoping to get the systematic runs and at least three training runs from ladies' start on the 16.
While in Calgary, I was notified by coach Ioan Apostol, FIL Development Coach, that the scheduled systematic runs on the 13 and 14 had been cancelled. The Monday ZT was also canceled because we were now asked to take all six systematic runs from curves 7 and 6 on Monday. I fully understand and support the fact that the safety, health, and well-being of the athletes comes first. However, following the six runs on Monday, we were allowed only one systematic run from ladies' start on Tuesday and were then instructed to move up to men's start. Coach Apostol requested that I be allowed to take the next two runs from ladies' start as well, but they denied this petition. If safety was the main concern for the mandatory six systematic runs in the first place, I fail to understand how it is that after only one run from ladies start, it was mandated that I move up to men's start immediately. In this regard, it would have been better to take only three systematic runs from either curves 6 and 7 and subsequently three or four from ladies' start to have a better chance of making it safely up to men's start. Obviously, still not 100% healthy and with limited training, I could not move up to men's start and was forced to forfeit the six official training runs plus the one Nation Cup run. With the additional 18 to 20 runs that most athletes took in the month of November, I was now about 25-30 runs behind the rest of the world on the Whistler track. I only had a total of 7 runs on the track.
During a subsequent conversation with Craig Lehto at the track in Whistler on Thursday February 19, 2009, I inquired about the difficulty in getting make-up training time at the track. Although I believe that Craig knew about my situation (because of the repeated correspondences sent to the Canadian Luge Association), he told me "you should have been here in November and that is your problem." He further stated "we also had scheduled systematic training last week and you didn't come either." I proceeded to explain my situation again and also mentioned that the said systematic training had been canceled. He replied that the systematic training had not been canceled and that they were planning on 17 sleds for that training. I reiterated that indeed the FIL had canceled the training and he indicated that this was the first time he heard about such cancellation.
I later became aware of the additional training week for the FIL group in November of this year. The FIL, however, indicated that any athlete that could not slide safely down the Whistler track at the end of that week, would not be allowed to remain on the FIL team. After watching training and racing in Whistler, however, I was concerned that one week may not be enough for an athlete to safely slide the track. There were a large number of crashes on the track at the World Cup in February, even among the world's elite athletes who already had more than 20 runs on this track. Now, following my concussion, which I believe happened because of a lack of safety precautions on the track, it appears that I no longer have a chance to qualify for the upcoming Winter Olympic Games.
Thus, I hereby request that you explain to me why the safety barricade was not in place for all training runs from men's start and secondly why I was repeatedly denied make-up training runs when athletes from a different nation with much more training expertise than I have were given additional runs on the Whistler track?
I will sincerely appreciate your prompt and honest response to my concerns.
Moffat didn't respond until Hoeger's lawyer sent another letter, and only then to say that Hoeger's training runs fell under VANOC's jurisdiction, not his. Hoeger then turned to Svein Romstad, the secretary general of the International Luge Federation. By now, he'd learned that Canadian officials had granted additional training time to Russian lugers in exchange for extra runs at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, a fairly common bit of Olympic horse-trading that nonetheless flew in the face of the Canadian federation's assurance to Hoeger that it could not "allow extra training outside what is offered for all athletes." Here's part of Hoeger's message to Romstad:
You are also aware of the fact that after an additional training request for the Whistler track, on July 10, 2009 Mr. Tim Farstad indicated that: "Our position has not changed on these extra training requests, we cannot allow extra training outside what is offered for all athletes. As I told you before, we have many asking for extra training due to an infinite amount of reasons, and once we say yes to one we would have to say yes to all." My response to Mr. Farstad on July 11 was: "I am not asking for extra training but ‘make-up' training for runs missed due to what I believe is a very valid reason. I think by now, most athletes on the WC circuit have about 30 runs on the Whistler track (I have 7). What I fail to understand is why is it such a difficult task to provide ‘make-up' runs to athletes who have seriously and consistently participated in the WC circuit and for extenuating circumstances or legitimate hardships were not able to take part in the 2008 ITW in Whistler. As an international athlete, coach and sports educator for more than 39 years, it just makes no sense to me. I do believe that Canada Luge and VANOC can truly evaluate the legitimacy of each individual request and make a decision accordingly. I do not believe that most athletes on the WC circuit would oppose such requests for make-up training. In closing I would like to say that I am not asking for special privileges. My motivation for the request that I have made is to be able to learn to slide the track safely and represent the sport with honor and dignity."
On July 12, in his correspondence to me, Mr. Edward Moffat indicated that: "As the President of the Canadian Luge Association, ultimately I am responsible for the decision Tim has communicated to you."
Thus, after telling me one thing, the Canadian Luge Association has engaged in other inexcusable and unethical actions by trading training runs with the Russian luge team on the Whistler track for future runs for the Canadian team on the next Olympic track in Russia prior to the 2014 Olympic Games (the Russian training took place prior to the international training week in November 2009). These actions lead me to question the integrity of Mr. Moffat, the Canadian Luge Association, and the fairness of the Olympic Games to be held on Canadian soil. When Mr. Moffat says one thing, which I have in writing, and then the exact opposite happens, it tells me he is not a trustworthy individual. While he has kept other athletes off the Whistler track, his actions directly benefited the Russian athletes and will benefit the Canadian athletes prior to the next Olympic Games. Such actions show that he is not an impartial official. Because of Mr. Moffat's unethical action, I hereby ask that:
1. Mr. Moffat be removed as race director for the luge event of the 2010 Olympic Games. Any participating nation should question his integrity. He cannot be trusted as an impartial official.
2. To make these next Olympic Games fair to all participating nations, all athletes should be offered, prior to the Vancouver Olympic Games, an equal number of runs on the Whistler track as the number of runs given to the Russian athletes during their training prior to the international training week this fall 2009.
3. The Canadian athletes forfeit the training runs that they unethically worked out with the Russian Luge Federation prior to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
4. The Canadian Luge Association be reprimanded for their unethical actions and failure to provide a safe sliding environment for athletes participating in the international training week during the fall of 2009.
I firmly believe that the concussion I sustained and the subsequent inability to take part in the rest of the Olympic qualification races was caused by failure on the part of the Whister Track leadership to provide a safe sliding environment and the unethical actions by the Canadian Luge Association. I now have to ask, how can they ever restore the opportunity that I had to become the oldest athlete in the history of the Winter Olympics Games? I also believe that the FIL, as the world governing body for the sport of luge, needs to take the necessary steps and make a statement to insure that such events will not repeat themselves in the future.
Romstad's response, in part:
You claim to not have wanted any special treatment in the qualifying process, yet (pragmatically speaking) any deviation from the schedule agreed to by the IOC, FIL and the organizers must be considered special treatment. Your request for make-up runs can therefore only be defined as a special treatment if it had been granted. Having said that, I completely understand your efforts trying to get make-up runs as your injury in the past season prevented you from participating in the 2008 ITW. The FIL have also not stood in the way and would have welcomed it had you been granted the requested make-up training. However, as the track owners and the organizers are under no obligation to provide such make-up training (regardless how just the cause may appear to be), they are not in violation of any FIL rules. It is from this point of view that the FIL has to view your situation.
For the upcoming Games in Vancouver, the FIL secured more training than we have ever had pre-Olympic for any Games. These concessions were not easily obtained, but the Canadian organizers have conformed to our agreement. Their denial of your request for make-up training falls outside our agreement as does providing additional training to the Russians. With this in mind, I can only state that the Canadian organizer has done nothing inappropriate as it pertains to the FIL rules. Therefore, in response to your request please see below:
1. Mr. Moffat has extensive experience as a Race Director and has executed his responsibilities according to the rules of the FIL. There has been nothing in his behavior as a Race Director to question his integrity and as such the FIL sees no valid reason for removing him from his position as Race Director for the Olympic Games.
2. The CLA and track owners are perfectly entitled to enter into bilateral agreements for make-up or additional training outside the FIL schedule as they deem appropriate provided such training does not take place after January 1st, 2010 (weaker nations exempted) (FIL and IOC rule). As the FIL does not have ownership of the track it is something we cannot control. As such we are also not in the position to mandate to the track owners to provide all athletes with the same number of runs as afforded the Russians now or in the future.
3. Once again, the FIL is not in a position to mandate the CLA does not take the runs that have been granted to them by the Sochi track owners for the same reason as stated in point 2.
4. Since the CLA has fulfilled their obligations to the FIL in accordance with the agreement set forth for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the FIL sees no reason to reprimand the CLA.
On Jan. 13, Hoeger finally got a response regarding the barricade: an unsolicited letter from the director and senior legal counsel of VANOC, Chris Gear, who writes:
The safety measures that were in place at the time of Dr. Hoeger's accident were in conformance with FIL standards, based on its experience in conducting international luge events, and consistent with widely accepted international practice. The absence of a barricade at the Ladies' Start when men's competitions or training was being conducted was mandated by the FIL.
Mandated. "This shows the carelessness, how casual they are about the safety of the athletes," says Hoeger, adding that the new tracks are "being built in such a way as to exceed the limitations of all the athletes in the world." He points out that the track used at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary was held to be one of the "easiest tracks in the world," adding that, with Whistler, "the Canadians were trying to shake that stigma" — to "put some teeth in the track."
The world of luge is an insular and Darwinian one that's fundamentally tilted toward those already at the top. It's also highly secretive. Even the construction of the sleds themselves is a shadowy affair, which further serves to benefit the sport's elite. "There are very few people in the world that really know how to manufacture the sleds, and for the smaller nations, those sleds are not available," says Hoeger, who notes that luge etiquette demands that an athlete not look or touch someone else's sled. "In essence, it's like driving a VW against a BMW."
One week ago, Nodar Kumaritashvili, the No. 44 slider on the 65-man World Cup circuit, went to a track that had been certified by the best sliders in the world, a group that does not include the likes of the No. 44 slider on the World Cup circuit. Shortly after Curve 2, he glided past a trouble spot that by FIL mandate wasn't barricaded until Warner Hoeger's head went bopping down the ice. And as he emerged from Curve 16, he drove his VW into the wall. User error didn't kill Nodar Kumaritashvili, as the FIL has implied. His sport did.