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