In Free Fall Is Alpine Skiing Getting too Dangerous?

After a number of serious accidents, top downhill skiers are complaining that courses are getting too dangerous. Are organizers putting skiers' lives at risk to please sponsors and spectators?

As Scott Macartney glides across the finish line, the man announcing the ski competition in the small town of St. Christina in the Italian Alps tells the crowd: "It's nice to have this man back with us." The spectators applaud, and Macartney waves back. He looks like a winner.

A few hours after the race on the Saslong downhill ski course, Macartney is sitting in the team's hotel at the ski resort in the nearby town of Wolkenstein. He is smiling and clearly in a good mood. He finished in 15th place. That's not very impressive, but, as he says: "It was still somehow a miracle."

Just a year ago, it looked like Macartney's career was over. At the Hahnenkamm race in Kitzbühel, Austria, he crossed the last jump before the finish line at 140 kilometers per hour (88 mph). He flew too far, lost his balance in midair, and landed sideways on the slope. The force of the impact tore his helmet off his head. Macartney slid unconscious across the finish line. His body twitched a few times, and then he stopped moving.

It was one of last winter's most brutal crashes and elicited the usual expressions of concern among fellow skiers. But that concern turned into unconcealed rage when Peter Obernauer, the race manager at the Hahnenkamm downhill course, gave his thoughts on the accident. "The Yank just thought he had to go over the jump in a tuck position," Obernaur said. "That's what pulled him off course in the air." He could have just as easily said it was all Macartney's fault.

Macartney's accident shook the confidence that skiers have in race organizers. Obernauer's comments might have had something to do with it, too. Either way, professionals are now debating the safety of their own races. At the beginning of the season, Bode Miller, the overall World Cup champion, said some races gamble with "the lives of the racers." Privately, some athletes say there are organizers who are only want to offer audiences the biggest possible spectacle. In that context, one name keeps coming up: Kitzbühel.

The Hahnenkamm downhill course, which winds from an altitude of 1,665 meters (5,460 feet) to the valley below, is nicknamed "die Streif" ("the Strip"). The minute a racer leaves the starting gate, he finds himself in something resembling a free fall. Within six seconds, he accelerates to a speed of 100 km/h (63 mph). Traveling at that speed, he approaches the "Mousetrap," a monstrous jump that can send racers flying for up to 80 meters (260 feet). The landing is followed by a compression that puts enormous strain on the leg muscles and, then, by a slope with a 62 percent gradient, where the skier must be careful not to veer off course -- or risk landing head-first in a safety net.

And that's just the first 30 seconds on the Streif.

The Man in Charge

Peter Obernauer sits in a warm lodge on a light-colored wooden bench, hands folded in his lap. "We don't force anyone to ski down that run," he says.

Obernauer, a native of Austria's Tyrol region, used to be a racer himself. When he was 19, he fell in Kitzbühel. At that time there were no safety nets, and he flew into the forest flanking the course. His tendons and knees were destroyed. After that, Obernauer only raced on a ski bob. "The Hahnenkamm devoured me," he says.

But the Streif is also his life. For the past 30 years it's been Obernauer's job to prepare the course for competitions. He has seen a simple ski race transform itself into a society event, one which attracts celebrities who arrive by helicopter. He celebrated the victories of Austrian skier Franz Klammer, and he saw German skier Klaus Gattermann tumble head over heels nine times at the Hausbergkante jump in 1985.

And Macartney? "Well, it certainly was horrific," he growls. "But the Streif is the Streif," Obernauer says. "It's the most difficult race in the world." You can hear pride in his voice when he speaks.

Adding Danger to Danger

When it comes to professional skiing, downhill racing is the main attraction. Up to 45,000 spectators attend tradition-steeped races in Kitzbühel, Wengen and Garmisch; the VIP boxes are always sold out. The race organizers are in charge of staging the show. To keep audiences entertained and TV viewership up, the races have to be spectacular. But with too many gory injuries, people might stop watching in disgust. Obernauer calls it a "balancing act."

Safety standards for the World Cup are high. Mavericks and daredevils are no longer allowed to enter. The runs are prepared so each athlete can glide down without having to navigate furrows or holes. The most treacherous stretches are secured with layers of safety nets. They're designed to slow a wipeout so the skier can emerge without internal injuries.

Still, serious accidents occur. In 2001, during a race in Val d'Isère, Silvano Beltrametti crashed through a safety net and slammed into a cliff. The Swiss man is now paraplegic. Last March, Austrian skier Matthias Lanzinger's lower left leg had to be amputated after an accident during a World Cup race in Norway. In the current season, there has hardly been a race without torn ligaments or tendons -- either from falls or from excessive muscle strain on the sharp curves.

This is the collateral damage in a sport that is becoming increasingly risky, for several reasons: The runs are coated with ice to keep the surfaces intact during a race. Skis are now designed to let skiers accelerate in curves, which would normally slow them down. And even if racers wear helmets, their bodies are covered only by thin racing suits.

Professional downhill skiers are used to extreme situations, but they're overwhelmed in too many cases. At the World Cup held in Bormio, Italy, on Dec. 26, 2008, racers were falling during practice runs. Austrian skier Christoph Gruber said the course was "life-threatening."

'We Can't Wrap the Mountain in Cotton Wool'

At every World Cup downhill racing event, Günter Hujara, 56, is on the mountain before the racers climb out of bed. Hujara, a native of Germany's Black Forest, serves as racing director for the International Ski Federation (FIS). He works with local managers like Peter Obernauer in Kitzbühel to design courses that allow racers to cross the finish line in one piece. It is the most important job in the World Cup competition.

Hujara has many options for making a course less treacherous. If a jump carries skiers too far, Hujara can have its size reduced. But unless he wants to listen to the television directors complain, he has to be careful not to make things too comfortable.

Working with a racing jury, Hujara decides whether a race can begin in the first place. He's under enormous pressure. As a former racer, he knows the risks professionals take, but he also knows how much a race costs. The budget in Kitzbühel is €5.5 million ($7.5 million). If he has to cancel an event, Hujara has to explain himself to sponsors.

Hujara finds the talk about safety irritating. "We can't wrap the mountain in cotton wool," he says. "We do everything we can to maximize safety, but even the best doctor loses a patient once in a while." In fact, Hujara wants racers to take more responsibility. Each Alpine skier, he says, inspects the course before a race and signs a statement confirming that he is aware of the risks he is undertaking by participating in a World Cup downhill race. Still, the athletes never stop complaining.

Face managers are important partners to athletes, who have to place almost blind trust in them. Racers have a unique psychology. They have spent their lives learning how to ski as fast as possible and, when in doubt, to take the riskier alternative. As Marco Büchel, an alpine ski racer from Liechtenstein puts it, skiers follow "trained instincts" when they race. "We floor it," he says simply.

If accidents are to be prevented, there can be no unpleasant surprises. A jump cannot suddenly take a skier further during a competition than it did a day earlier during a training session. And the people responsible for ensuring that it won't are men like Hujara or Obernauer.


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