Even the daredevils have reason to fear Whistler

The best racers in the world are crashing like the people who

pay for lift tickets do, forced into embarrassing head-over-skis

tumbles down the slopes and worse. A few have been seriously

injured, and, even in a sport that courts daredevils, more than a

few are flat-out scared by the risks the courses and conditions

demand.

Welcome to the Alpine edition of these increasingly treacherous

Winter Olympics, where questions about whether the organizers are

smart enough to set up courses that are both challenging and safe

have pierced the smooth surface of the games’ glamour events like

rocks peaking up through the snow.

The concerns still fall far short of those being directed at the

officials in charge of the Whistler sliding track, where a

21-year-old Georgian luger was killed during a training run late

last week. But the skiers are voicing them now to make certain no

one winds up – as another luger said ominously just before Nodar

Kumaritashvili’s fatal crash – being used as a “crash-test

dummy.”

Didier Cuche, the reigning world champion in Friday’s super-G

event, came down off the slopes after a training session Thursday

and described the course this way: “Completely broken. We have to

wait until tomorrow morning to see how they work on that.”

American Ted Ligety, the defending gold medalist in the

super-combined, fired a warning shot at the course-setters earlier

in the day by tweeting: “Just finished freeskiing the superg hill.

It’s in horrible condition. It’s gonna be a nasty race.”

In an interview with The Associated Press at the bottom of the

hill, he was more expansive.

“They tried to inject (water) and it just didn’t hold up. It’s

just breaking through all over the place. It’s really bumpy, but

then the injection with the water sat up on top of it, and

underneath it was soft,” he said. “So the top layer kind of

cracked and crumbled underneath your foot.

“It’s warm today and if it melts and then freezes up again,”

he added, “it should be better.”

But the women in Thursday’s super-combined event didn’t have the

option of waiting.

Lindsey Vonn, who grabbed the first U.S. gold ever in the

women’s downhill, got caught straddling a gate in the slalom

portion of the super-combined, lost her right ski, and crashed out

of the race. She didn’t complain about the course, but her husband,

Thomas Vonn, said plenty about the course she won on a day

earlier.

“It doesn’t take (six) people wrecking off it to know it’s

dangerous,” he said. “Obviously, it’s downhill racing and it’s

always going to be dangerous. But you can minimize risk before it

turns into a disaster.

“The first time I inspected the course I saw how bumpy it was.

I looked at that last jump and I said, ‘This is going to be

serious.”’

This is how right he was: Five-time Olympic medalist Anja

Paerson of Sweden lost control on that jump and sailed some 50

yards through the air – farther than a handful of women ski jumpers

at the world championships last winter. Paerson landed on her back,

badly bruised but not broken, and bravely roared back the next day

to claim the bronze in the super-combined.

What aggravated some of the competitors is that International

Ski Federation officials shaved the jump only after the

competition, instead of before, when it might have done some

good.

“Originally, it was even higher,” said FIS women’s race

director Atle Skaardal. “But we also shaved it after the downhill

training run Monday and again after the race Wednesday because we

were finished with the (downhill) specialists. They go 50-60 meters

in the air all the time in the World Cup, but the athletes in the

combined don’t often face such jumps.”

Skaardal said the jump proved difficult even for a racer as

skilled as Paerson because the warm, wet conditions of the previous

days resulted in a bumpy, wearying course that left many skiers too

tired to set up for that last leap properly.

“We had eight to 10 snowcats and 200 people working every

night, but you can only undo so much of the damage when the weather

will not cooperate. This is an outdoor sport. You can’t make it as

smooth as a skating rink, no matter how much you try. … I’m just

glad that Anja came back so strongly.”

Not everyone was as fortunate or as tough as Paerson. Five other

women did not finish the downhill – four men were knocked out of

the same event Monday – and 21-year-old Romanian Edith Miklos had

to be airlifted off the course by helicopter after her crash and

was later treated for a knee injury.

“Unfortunately it seems like there’s a lot of reactionary

things that happen instead of looking ahead and seeing the problems

first,” Thomas Vonn said. “It seems like people don’t really

listen on that front and I don’t know how to get around it, because

there’s a lot of people that could probably give good input on

it.

“I mean I saw it, all the athletes saw it,” he said, his voice

rising. “Why doesn’t anyone else see it? It’s unfortunate.”

Peter Bosinger, the Vancouver Organizing Committee official

overseeing the FIS course-setters for both men and women, had an

answer at the ready.

“FIS manages the field of play and every race has a jury that

sets the race course, then allows coaches to comment on the

terrain. There were no concerns raised prior to the race day and

the races,” Bosinger said. “With the weather cooperating, they’ll

be able to fine-tune it even more, beginning with the super-G.

We’re already making adjustments. I’m confident we’ll have a safe,

tough track ready for them.”

What about Thomas Vonn’s comments about being proactive rather

than reactive?

“I used to coach Thomas Vonn,” said Bosinger, a former coach.

“He is not a jury member, he’s not one of the U.S. coaches. He’s

Lindsey Vonn’s husband.”

That’s a good thing, because nobody else with a stake in these

Olympics seems to be quite as concerned.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org