TELL YOUR PUP YOU LOVE HIM

(CORRECTED) On 2012.01.05, the Canada 2 four-man bobsled driven by Chris Spring crashed on the track at Altenberg, Germany. Three of the four bobsledders were injured – Spring, Bill Thomas, and Graeme Rinholm – and were hospitalized in Germany. Tim Randall had only superficial injuries and was not hospitalized. The Canadian bobsleigh team pulled out of the race the next day, with coach Tom de la Hunty insisting the track remained unsafe.

On 2012.01.06, Bobsleigh Canada held a conference call for journalists. I phoned in and took notes. Participants (alphabetically):

  • Nathan Cicoria, high-performance director

  • Chris Dornan, media rep (normally out of Houston, in Val di Fiemme, Italy, during the call)

  • Tom de la Hunty, head coach

  • Pierre Lueders, driving coach

  • Lyndon Rush, pilot, Canada 1

  • Don Wilson, Bobsleigh Canada CEO

When not specified, usually it was de la Hunty answering questions.

Notes

  1. CHRIS DORNAN: I want to advise you guys there are a lot of rumours and speculation and inaccurate reporting coming from Europe about the guys and [their] getting released [from hospital].

  2. DON WILSON: Our primary position was to ensure the safety and the well-being of the athletes that were hurt…. All of the families have been notified and have been in contact with their athletes. The only person we’re waiting for is Chris Spring, because his father is out of Darwin. As far as we’re concerned, that’s been our primary concern out of here.

  3. NATHAN CICORIA: [Discusses Canadian skeleton team’s review for safety. Men’s competition has already taken place. Women will compete. “There’s definitely a team dynamic there that they’re aware of, and I guess they felt it was appropriate to, I guess, honour their fellow sliders by competing and put their best foot forward.” Then discusses how a skeleton sled is so much lighter it wouldn’t have the same effect on a roof if a sled hit that roof.] [Nobody points out the case of Nodar Kumaritashvili, or the fact that a skeleton athlete who hit this kind of roof would be dead on impact, as happened to luger Kumaritashvili at Whistler under its own conditions.]

  4. Q. Why pull out of Altenberg?

    A. from TOM de la HUNTY: The decision primarily was safety-based. We’re all aware that Chris Spring had a really nasty crash. He basically came into Corner 16 out of control. He didn’t steer…. [The sled] shot up into the roof again, went through the wooden barriers, hit one of the steel girders there, and that girder ripped straight through the front axle of the sled… The sled came to a stop in approximately 10 m, doing about 130 km/h, and as you can imagine that force was absolutely enormous.

    The aftermath of the crash was pretty chaotic, but… FIBT said the track would be repaired the following day to a very high standard…. [I inspected it at 8:00 in the morning] and all they’d done was reline the track’s steel girders with wooden planks. It looked very nice, but it was exactly the same as it was the morning before… Therefore the track was equally as dangerous as it was the previous morning… So after some considerable deliberation, I decided to pull the team, because it’s unsafe. And the FIBT are currently hoping that no one’s going to make a mistake. They aren’t ensuring no one’s going to make a mistake. They’re hoping.

  5. [PETER WATTS asks about the condition of the athletes.]

    A. from de la HUNTY: [All three are in the hospital. Physiotherapist Chris Anderson has seen all three. All are resting comfortably. Derek Rinholm has a broken fibula, a cracked rib, and muscle damage to buttocks; the muscle tissue was repaired and the wound stitched up. Bill Thomas (was thought to have) a back injury, but it’s actually minor. He has air in the cavity between ribs and chest and bruising to lungs, but is generally well. Hopefully out of the hospital Monday.] Chris Spring has a broken nose, which will probably make him even better looking in years to come, and severe damage to his buttocks as well – wood lodged there, glass fibre. He’s had that all cleaned out and is in very good spirits.

  6. Q. How many runs did their crew do before the accident?

    A.. [Four in two-man. Crashed on first run in four-man, then one more run, then one more crash. Five total.]

  7. [Q. to Lyndon Rush asking about his own familiarity with the course.]

    A. from RUSH: It’s quite technically demanding, and it’s my favourite place to slide…. Because of that, it’s what makes it tricky – the high adrenaline rush is what makes it so much fun. [He watched the crash on a monitor.] It was snowing at the time. I had gone down just before him, and there was some buildup of snow on my visor, which was sort of distracting. You can add to that that Chris was nervous in the four-man since he’d crashed the day before. You can tell when an athlete is nervous, because they started quite slow….

    And he actually tipped over in Corner 15, and when they went into Corner 16, which is a really sharp left, they slapped back on their runners, and that’s when the wave started to happen. If I’m a pilot, I’m ducking under the cowling at this point; I’m not even looking [where I’m going]…. They slid all the way up to the braking line, not in [10 m]; they slid backwards and slid to a stop 10 m after the [line]. [He doesn’t see how anyone would have survived had the sled really stopped in a distance of 10 m.]

  8. [GARY KINGSTON, Vancouver Sun, asks Lyndon Rush what he thinks about decision not to race.]

    A. from RUSH: When I got told, I was mad. I really wanted to race bad…. Then I look at the face of Tom, my head coach, and I could see he was devastated. He carried a great burden as our head coach. He’s responsible for us. And I don’t think he really could have lived with any consequences of any risk he would have put us in…. But I trust my head coach Tom a great deal…. I didn’t get mad at him. I said “I’m glad I don’t have your job.”

  9. [Q. from TEDDY KATZ, CBC.]

    A.. The specific concerns are that exactly the same thing could have happened to Lyndon, to Kaillie, that happened to Chris…. Anything can happen to this track, and [had it done so] we could have had the same catastrophic events we had today. If you guys could see the destruction of the four-man bobsleigh, it was really a miracle these guys got out. I’m telling you it was that serious…. As skilled as Lyndon and Kaillie are, anything can happen in a bobsled. This accident has happened on numerous occasions with numerous teams over the years [on Corner 16]; you hit the roof and come down. And [it is] my absolute determination to push FIBT at some point in the future to look after these tracks. And there is no doubt in my mind that this track is dangerous at the moment.

    The lips on modern corners are not just planks with— we have numerous photographs of the destruction. They’ve got steel girders spaced about every eight feet apart. It’s just ridiculous. With a modern bobsleigh like that, you just can’t have that, because a bobsleigh can break through wood…. I just think the track is not up to it. That corner in particular is a double-pressure corner and it’s [always] the same problem. In my mind, they should have cancelled the race.

  10. Q. Did he crash at the same spot the day before?

    A.. [No. Further up the course.]

  11. Q. What was the FIBT’s reaction when you told them you were pulling your team out?

    A. They were pretty shocked…. [The boss on site] asked me not to make a snap decision until the boss of the FIBT came up a couple of hours later. I’d already made my decision [since they weren’t gong to change the track].

  12. [Q. from Globe: Reaction from FIBT about your demand they look into the safety of the track?]

    A. There was no reaction! […] They couldn’t believe the amount of damage they’d seen and they were talking about how weak the roof was in that area. Privately, there’s been a lot of support for what we’ve done – 100%. Publicly, they’re all together [in saying nothing].

    [They were] pretty shocked we were brave enough to do something like that. They’re not accustomed to anyone having the gumption to make tough decisions like that. I’m very proud my team has supported the decision. [We spent a lot of money getting there, and we lost points that would cost us in later starting positions in future races,] but someone has to make a stand somewhere.

  13. RANDY STARKMAN, Toronto Star: Have you ever seen a tem of Canada’s stature pull out of a World Cup before?

    A.. I can’t remember that I have, to tell you the truth. No.

  14. JAMES CHRISTIE: The two-man and four-man have pulled out, but not the skeleton?

    A. [Correct.]

  15. [Q. from me asking about de la Hunty’s quote in the Sydney Morning Herald: “ ‘He… must have made a mistake,’ de la Hunty said.” We saw the same kind of blaming with Nodar Kumaritashvili at Whistler.] Do you have any factual evidence backing up the claim that Spring “made a mistake”?

    A. from TOM de la HUNTY: [Angrily denies making that statement!] Basically, it doesn’t matter what happened. If anyone had skidded and slapped [down] on four runners, he [wouldn’t be able to] steer… But whatever mistake you make in a course, you shouldn’t be able to go through the roof of a course…. When you tip over, you expect the track has done its work [and made it safe].

  16. [An amazingly bullshit question from one of the old-man newspaper reporters: Are you afraid the other teams will start up a “whispering campaign”?]

    A. from de la HUNTY: No, quite the opposite…. I’d be very interested to hear what’s going to happen at the team captains’ meeting tonight [about upcoming four-man races].

  17. [Strange question from AP about instilling fear in one’s athletes.]

    A.. This was a physical problem with a bobsleigh track, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I sent the team down on a track that I knew was dangerous. I assure you, if you were anyone making the same mistake that Chris did today [emphasis added] you would see very, very big problems. This is very different from Whistler…. This is not me instilling fear in my team. They have no fear on my team. This is about the FIBT riding roughshod over coaches [who] considers [certain] tracks to be dangerous.

  18. [Q. from TEDDY KATZ.]

    A. [On any other track, you’d bounce right back off the roof. Here you burst through.] It’s a massive problem – a sled actually piercing through the lid of a bobsleigh course is almost catastrophic for four men.

    RUSH: When the track was built, the wood likely was sufficient, but [maybe] the track needs to be updated.

  19. Q. Are you conerned going into this week? Chris Spring had never competed in Altenberg, right?

    A. [Yes, he had competed.]

  20. Q. Was there any concern going in about Chris’s ability to drive that track?

    A.. Nope. He’s driven Whistler, he’s driven Lake Placid, he’s driven several of the toughest tracks in the world. He’s done very well…. I won’t lie to you and say were weren’t concerned. Of course we were concerned. But we had every confidence in him… The track gave up and pushed that sled completely over the limits.

  21. [Q. But did he actually tip over in Corner 15? Was the error made there?]

    A. from RUSH: [Not uncommon on that track.] When you come out of that corner at 15, the straightaway falls away. You almost go uphill, then it falls away. So you lose all pressure on the ice. If you’re not perfectly straight coming out of that 14th corner, you’re going to skid…. [If so], it puts you in a position you don’t train for. You train for the good line. An experienced driver, he goes for a different line [emphasis added]…. But it wasn’t a lack of skill…. It’s just that he went through the roof, you know what I mean?

  22. [LUEDERS agrees with Rush about the “technical” nature of the track.]

  23. [PETER WATTS asks when they are set to be released from hospital.]

    A. from TOM de la HUNTY: [Unknown; Bill possibly Monday, at least a week for the rest.]

  24. [Q. from me about how long they’d need to recuperate in Europe before being able to fly back home, since any vascular condition or lung injury rules out air travel.]

    A. [They don’t have any information on that. CICORIA says decisions are made in a “coordinated” way, not just at the discretion of medical staff in Germany.]

  25. [Question missed by scribe]

    A. from TOM de la HUNTY: No other track in the world I have any concerns about whatsoever.

  26. [STARKMAN asks LUEDERS if he has ever heard of any other teams having pulled out.]

    LUEDERS: As a matter of fact, Randy, I have. The Germans pulled out numerous pilots at the Lake Placid World Cup. Christoph Lange… was terrified of the Lake Placid track and pulled out. Not because of danger, but because he was just scared. The German team in general was scared of the track. They’re still scared of the track to this day. There’s no safety issues whatsoever. There’s a great example of a team who was fearful of being fearful. They didn’t feel comfortable, so they didn’t slide. [That was in 2003, he believes.]

    [Germans also had a crash in Corner 7 once. Lange was “completely fearful and was scared to slide,” so he went home. Names two other German examples.]

    [I asked who on this call had enough German to call up Lange and the other German athletes and get their side of the story. “There aren’t two sides,” Lueders said. “There are always two sides in journalism, Pierre,” I said (at least in allegations like these).]

  27. LUEDERS: I must say I’ll be very upset if I read that Chris Spring is responsible for this accident… He’s more than qualified to [drive World Cup].

Call ended after 42 minutes.


Prediction

Save for Teddy Katz, the old-man journos on the call were acting like the herd they are and seemed intent on making the following case:

  • Chris Spring was too green to race down the Altenberg track in the first place. Though conclusively denied by de la Hunty and Lueders, I predict hacks will forge right ahead and publish this angle. The argument is indistinguishable from what we read about Nodar Kumaritashvili and the entire Georgian sliding team after Kumaritashvili died on the Whistler track during the Vancouver Olympics. It’s blaming the victim: With kids this green, you half-expect them to kill themselves. Hey, it’s his own damned fault.

    This angle is even more ludicrous when you consider there is always a first time a pilot takes a run down a course. When exactly are pilots ever supposed to be “ready”?

  • Journos will gleefully publish the character assassination blurted out by inveterate asshole Pierre Lueders. They won’t bother to phone up the German athletes Lueders essentially called too chickenshit to race. What Lueders said is too juicy not to run, isn’t it?

  • The real story is the unsafe conditions of the Altenberg track and FIBT officials’ alleged indifference to them. Again, though, think back to Vancouver, where a host of complaints that the sliding track was too fast, and the barriers around it fatal if impacted, were met with strenuous insistence that the track was A-OK.

    There is a clear need to investigate the apparently razor-thin difference between a “technical” course and one that is fatally misdesigned. Nobody is going to carry out that investigation because not a single news outlet here, including the CBC, would ever entertain the prospect of flying journalists to far-off ice tracks that serve a trio of sports barely anybody cares about.

I would be quite happy to be proven wrong, of course. I doubt I will be.

Timeline of Bobsleigh Canada’s response

(UPDATE) After scattering objections all over the place, Chris Dornan later heeded my request to supply a timeline of Bobsleigh Canada’s response to the crash. (All times Mountain.)

  • First release went out Thursday at 2:00 P.M.

  • First teleconference was Thursday at 2:45 P.M. with CEO and high-performance director

  • First in-person availability in Calgary was at 4:00 P.M. at head office

  • Second release went out at 10:26 A.M. once a decision was made to pull out of the race

  • Second teleconference was at noon

Dornan helped out with a few proper names.


Document history

  • Posted 2012.01.06. Timeline added an hour or so later. Numerous typos fixed.

  • After Justin Kripps complained, made it clearer that Nodar Kumaritashvili practised luge, not skeleton.

  • Liveblogs like these open with the most errors of anything I produce because I type at full tilt with endless typing errors. I have done this hundreds of times over a 20-year period, and I use what is ordinarily a reliable system to debug the resulting copy – short-term memory, spellcheckers, and onscreen and paper proofs. Wherever sense is in doubt (it never was here), I don’t publish a statement as a direct quote.

    In this case, it took two full days of repeated rebooting, and ultimately necessitated quitting a runaway printing process, for my shitbox printer to spit out a printout, and only then could I put in the level of error-correction I usually do before publishing in the first place.

    Of course this isn’t how I usually do things and of course this isn’t my usual standard of care. (I lecture other people, especially other journalists, about their copy errors, and, when I’m not lecturing them, I publish entire manuals on how to improve their copy and avoid errors.) But everyone who complained about errors made errors in their own complaints. (That’s how it works!)

    This piece was and is a worst-case scenario for typing errors and avoidable misspellings. I assure you it bothers me more than it bothers the two people who complained.

    Hence: Corrected version published 2012.01.08 16:06.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2012.01.06 15:53. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
http://blog.fawny.org/2012/01/06/bobsleighcrash-liveblog/

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