Clear and Present Danger

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By definition, winter sport is a dangerous business. Participants have to perform on a treacherous surface of ice or snow often at frightening speeds. In summer sports, just about the worst that can happen to an athlete is a pulled muscle or a torn ligament. In winter, the stakes are higher. Over the past dozen years five top-flight skiers have died pursuing their chosen sport, with dozens of others suffering career-threatening injuries. But still they race on.

Last October Régine Cavagnoud, who won the super-G World Cup in 2001 and was third overall in the World Cup standings, died in a freak training accident on the Pitztal glacier, near Innsbruck. During a joint French and German team-practice session, the 31-year-old Cavagnoud was speeding down the ice at around 65 km/h when she crashed into German coach Markus Anwander. Both sustained head injuries, and Cavagnoud went into cardiac arrest. Two days later she died. Germany's World combined champion Martina Ertl spoke for many of her fellow competitors when she said, "This is a brutal shock for me."

Just weeks after Cavagnoud's death, Silvano Beltrametti lost control at 120 km/h and sliced through the orange Kevlar netting that bordered the run in an especially violent crash during the season's opening World Cup downhill race at Val d'Isère. His spine was broken between the sixth and seventh vertebrae, leaving the 22-year-old Swiss skier paralyzed from the waist down. Beltrametti recently told a press conference: "I lived for skiing, 24 hours a day, but that time is behind me now. In a second all my dreams, goals and visions came to nothing."

The dangers for a racer of running into the nets had become obvious in 1991 when Austria's Gernot Reinstadler lost control in training for the World Cup downhill at Wengen. His ski tip caught in the netting, breaking his pelvis and causing massive internal injuries. The sport's ruling body, the International Ski Federation (FIS) — which constantly monitors developments in equipment technology — sets rules for skis and boots, but not for safety equipment. "The fis is not an institute that could start making crash tests of the nets," says Sonja Reichen, World Cup assistant at the FIS. "You would need approved official institutes to do that." The FIS prefers to rely on net manufacturers' product-liability, because, Reichen says, "it is in the producers' interests that they have good material."

Though the racers accept the inherent dangers of their sport, some think that safety could be improved. "If the safety was in place correctly, that kind of stuff wouldn't happen," says America's Picabo Street, who won silver in the downhill at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer and gold in the super-G at the 1998 Nagano Games. The FIS, recognizing that skis are getting faster and that skiers could fly beyond the limits of the nets, regularly recommends modifying courses by shaving the lips of jumps and setting gate controls before jumps to slow the racers down.

But still they crash. Austria's Hannes Trinkl, who suffered a cracked skull and a concussion in training at Schladming in November, recovered to take second place to the season's top downhiller Stephan Eberharter at Wengen in January. Third in that race was Josef Strobl, who fell in training for the next race, tearing knee ligaments and putting him out of action for six months. Robert Brunner, agent for a number of top Austrian skiers, is, like the racers, philosophical about the dangers. "There is a risk every racer takes when he goes downhill," he says. "They go very fast. They all live with the risks."

No other sports figures expose themselves to danger in the way that skiers do. No matter how safe the courses become, there will always be an element of chance that could turn the smallest mistake into a fatal one.