VAL D‘ISERE, France (Reuters) - It takes more than a crash, no matter how brutal, to turn downhill ski racers into a rational breed.
For the men and women who hurtle down vertiginous, rock-hard pistes at high speed, their bodies covered only by a thin layer of synthetic material, danger is just part of the deal.
Definitely brave and arguably mad, the daredevil racers are preparing to tackle the extremely steep Bellevarde piste at the world championships starting on Tuesday in the French Alps resort of Val d‘Isere.
One racer who should have been there, Swiss super-combined world champion Daniel Albrecht, was instead still in an induced coma after his horrendous accident in World Cup training in Kitzbuehel last month.
Not even seeing Albrecht fly through the air and land heavily on his back after losing his balance off the final jump of the awe-inspiring Streif piste could dent the determination of his fellow downhillers.
“Of course it’s difficult and we talked about it between us a lot but what we have to do is carry on doing our job and take all the risks that go with it,” Switzerland’s Didier Defago, who won the Kitzbuehel downhill, told Reuters.
“That’s what Dani would want.”
Fully aware of the dangers of their sport, downhill racers cope by laughing them off or putting them out of their minds.
Austria’s Hermann Maier showed what downhillers are made of when he casually brushed the snow off his skisuit after cartwheeling through the air in a crash during the Olympic downhill at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.
The former bricklayer went on to win super-G and giant slalom gold medals a few days later.
The day before his crash, Albrecht had joked after being disqualified from a training run for missing a gate.
“I was just bluffing today so that the others wouldn’t be able to watch me and discover the perfect line for the race,” he told reporters.
While doctors were continuing to monitor bleeding in the 25-year-old Albrecht’s lungs, coaches and officials said there was nothing wrong with the safety measures in Kitzbuehel and the skier was the only one to blame for the crash.
“He was leaning backwards too much when he took that jump,” Swiss head coach Martin Rufener told reporters. “It was not something you could have predicted. It was a human mistake.”
Safety regulations were not at fault, said the International Ski Federation (FIS).
“There’s nothing to change in all the preparations we had done, nothing to change with the piste or the jump,” FIS race director Guenther Hujara told reporters.
The Bellevarde piste, which was designed for the 1992 Olympics and will host the men’s super-G on Wednesday and the blue-riband downhill on Saturday, is maybe not as frightening as the Streif, where the skiers standing in the start hut can see the first jump and then nothing.
It is, nevertheless, the steepest of slopes with a vertical drop of 959 meters for a total length of 2,988 meters, and requires a strong stomach, as Senegal’s Lamine Gueye found out before the start of the 1992 downhill.
“I was so afraid I almost threw up,” Gueye famously said.
Since the days when skiers raced with no helmets and virtually no protection on the sides of the piste, safety has been constantly upgraded with the introduction of mandatory training runs, reinforced safety netting and other measures.
At the same time, speed has steadily increased courtesy of research on suits and skis, and accidents have never gone away.
Downhill racing has claimed many lives, including that of French world super-G champion Regine Cavagnoud, who collided with a coach during training in Austria in 2001, and Austria’s Ulrike Maier, mother of a young daughter, who crashed during a World Cup downhill in the German resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1994.
Swiss skier Silvano Beltrametti was paralyzed from the chest down in a 120-kph crash on Val d‘Isere’s O.K. piste in December 2001. Ten years earlier, Austrian Gernot Reinstadler died after a crash on a training run for the Lauberhorn downhill race in Wengen.
Unlike Formula One, where drivers are now protected by rigid safety cells, downhill skiing remains as dangerous as ever and not much can be done about it.
“The only way to avoid the risks in downhill is to stop having downhills,” Hujara said.
Additional reporting by Patrick Lang and Mark Ledsom; Editing by Clare Fallon