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Vancouver Olympic panel says it can't be blamed for luger's death

By Paula Newton, CNN
  • Vancouver Olympics official warned of track's dangers a year before accident
  • He says steps were taken to make track safer after the warning
  • International Luge Federation signed off on the track, official says

Ottawa, Ontario (CNN) -- The head of the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee warned that an athlete could get "badly injured or worse" almost a full year before Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed during a practice run at the 2010 Winter Games.

In an interview with CNN, John Furlong said although he knew there were safety concerns about the track, the sporting federations involved eventually signed off on it.

"When you got to the start of the Olympic Games, we were told by the sports (federations) that the track was ready for the Olympics, which meant it met the standard. This is not an area of expertise for any organizing committee. Not ours, not anyone else's, not Salt Lake, not Torino." said Furlong.

"Our job is to do what they ask us to do. They signed off and said the track was ready, " Furlong said.

The death of Kumaritashvili, a luger ranked in the bottom tier of his sport, returned to the spotlight when e-mails related to the luge track were released by a coroner's inquest in British Columbia.

The string of e-mails and letters seems to suggest that the speed of the track, which had lugers clocking as much as 15 mph faster than usual, was a concern well before the Olympics opened.

In a copy of e-mail obtained by CNN, the Vancouver Olympics organizing committee says it received a copy of a letter from the International Luge Federation in March 2009. In that letter the federation, which is ultimately responsible for the condition of the track, expressed concern to the track's designer about the speed of the track.

That prompted Furlong to write in an e-mail: "Embedded in this note (cryptic as it may be) is a warning that the track is in their view too fast and someone could get badly hurt. An athlete gets badly injured or worse and I think the case could be made we were warned and did nothing."

In the e-mail, Furlong goes on to suggest that the exchange of letters should be looked at by the organizing committee's legal team. Furlong confirmed to CNN that there were some subsequent changes made to the track as prescribed by the federation, but that no further follow-up was done.

"What we were doing at the time was we were executing changes to the track that were all intended to improve safety and the athlete experience. We were in the middle of it. Those were completed by the early summer and agreed by the sports (federation) that we had done everything that was necessary to prepare the track for the games. There were no more e-mails. If the sports weren't happy with what we had done they would have told us," said Furlong.

In its own report on Kumaritashvili's death, the International Luge Federation called the accident "unforeseeable," adding that a complex series of events led to the tragedy, including pilot error.

Furlong told CNN that he personally met with Kumaritashvili's parents and had the greatest sympathy for them, but added that Olympic athletes come to the games to push the limits of sport and that means all Olympic events will carry some element of risk.

"If you look at the reports from the games and previous games you will see on the reports for these sports that there are numerous accidents at all of the Olympics. In some cases the accidents are serious, and in some not so serious. The sports try to contain these so that none of these accidents are catastrophic. In this case we had one that was and the sports will now have to find a way to make sure that we don't have such an occurrence happen ever again." Furlong said.