An article by Jared Wade in Risk Management Magazine references the death of luger Nodar Kumaritashvili and includes an email from VANOC head John Furlong relating to the safety concerns about the luge track raised before the Vancouver Games. Furlong wrote: “…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. Our legal guys should review at least.”

Furlong had the right approach to manage the related legal risk. But do we do risk management only to mitigate our potential legal risks or the risk related to meeting our strategic objectives? After all, the dangers (risks) associated with the course were identified because they were doing risk management!

It is a slippery slope when, after a Loss, lawyers can do Hindsight Risk Management and question the risk treatments/decisions performed in the past. Ask any consultant and they will tell you that risk management is already hard to sell (e.g, easier to sell the cure than the prevention.) But why the hell would any Board of Directors want to entertain an ERM program and a proactive approach to identifying risks when they could get sued for wrongful death or negligence for making the wrong risk treatment decision in hindsight?

Is there less risk doing risk management or not doing risk management? Would it have been better for VANOC to build the track, fill it with ice and send riders to their death?

Someone suggested that if a lawyer had sent Furlong the email about the luge risk, then the email would have be considered privileged and could not be used as evidence against VANOC. (Legal risk management?)

Is that what ERM will become? Will a risk only get documented if it doesn’t create downstream legal risk? Will all risk-related information have to travel through our external legal counsel so the information cannot be used against us? Do we want lawyers sanitizing the list of risks that management knows about to enable blissful ignorance and no lawsuits?

Scary.

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For more of my Vancouver Olympics risk management posts have a look at a these:
You cannot mitigate your risks in hindsight
Timing and severity of risk treatments

Are risk management treatments that we implement influenced by the timing and the severity of the event? How about emotion?

In hockey, a player is penalized 2 minutes for a high stick to the face of another player; but the penalized player is given a 4 minute penalty if the other player bleeds. The action is the same, but why is the punishment a function of the outcome? Should that matter?

On February 12, 2010, hours before the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Winter Games, Georgian luge athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili died after a crash during a training run. As a result, a couple of things happened: They lowered the men’s start to the women’s start (to slow down the course) and built a wall where the accident happened to ensure other athletes were not injured in the same place. (But in doing this, was this admission of guilt or good risk management?)

From a risk management perspective, the “stupid fast” risk of the track was determined to be acceptable and was signed off by the IFL. Not having the wall where the luger was killed appears to have been an unidentified risk.

Now what if Mr. Kumaritashvili had only sustained a broken leg? What if the accident had taken place during a training run in 2009 instead of on the eve of the Olympics? Would the actions have been different? Perhaps they would have built the wall, but would they have reduced the speed too for the Winter Games?

Timing and public relations (read: emotions) certainly had something to do with these actions. When your organizations develop risk treatments, keep this in mind.

Some additional facts about the track and the athlete courtesy of the CBC:

Mr. Kumaritashvili was ranked 44th out of 65 lugers on the world cup circuit but was considered experienced enough.

He had taken 26 runs on the Whistler course and others have taken 1000s of runs on the Whistler course already.

He was traveling 145km/hr at the time of the collision.

It’s a fast track, ¼ of the width of the Salt Lake track at 97m wide with a 48-story vertical drop, so curves are very close, back to back.

There were complaints about the track.

Luge blinds were coming down during the training run.