Going downhill — fast!
By Lottie Wengelin
In 1967 Jean Claude Killy won the Wengen downhill in a time of 3:06.76. When Ken Read won on an icy Wengen course in 1980 in 2:31.31 runner up Josef Walcher said the course was maxed out. The next day Peter Mueller set a new course record of 2:30.56. Last month Kristian Ghedina won on the same course in a time of 2:26.33
Improved techniques, equipment and course grooming are making downhill racing faster and faster. But as speeds increase so do the consequences of a crash. The realities of racing have changed.
The tragic death of Austrian skier Uli Maier last winter put a tremendous damper on downhill racing. Her crash, on a section of the Garmisch course where organizers didn't anticipate anyone falling, was the ultimate example of how costly mistakes in downhill racing can be.
Canadian Brian Stemmle nearly lost his life in a 1989 crash at Kitzbühel, Austria. Whistler's Rob Boyd will miss next week's Warsteiner World Downhill on his home course, and is missing his second full season of competition in four years, because of a knee injury he sustained in a crash in the season-opening downhill at Val d’Isere.
Before the season started Boyd was positive and had high hopes for the winter.
"I feel like I’m making a comeback from injuries," he said. "To race in Whistler will be special. Apart from that I know the terrain so well, I have the entire community behind me. Everybody that sees me wishes me luck. They tell me that they know I can do it — and that this is my year."
Unfortunately the fans were wrong.
Boyd was the first racer out of the gate when the downhill season finally started at Val d’Isere on Dec. 16. Two-thirds of the way down the course he was transferring his weight from his left ski to his right when the right ski slid out from underneath him. The resulting spread eagle tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee right off the bone.
"You just can’t afford to go down at all anymore," Boyd said after his surgery. "If you go down, you’re lucky if you only have bruises."
But going down is part the increased competitiveness of downhill racing in the ’90s.
"Five or 10 years ago maybe 10 skiers in a race were capable of winning. Now there is more like 30," says Boyd.
Better skis and better course preparation — including the use of groomers and chemicals to harden the snow — have contributed to the increased competitiveness and higher speeds. There is no proof that higher speeds are directly responsible for more serious injuries, but nobody is denying it either.
Gord Vincent, Director of Public Relations and Communications for Alpine Canada says, "I don’t want to downplay the serious accidents. The injuries today may not have occurred a few years ago. It is a part of the sport, unfortunately. And a part of the appeal as well."
The high risks were one of the reasons behind the FIS’s introduction of the acknowledgement of risk form this year. The document is intended to have all FIS racers in all disciplines acknowledge that they are participating in a risk sport and that there may be circumstances beyond their control. It also helps clarify the responsibilities of race organizers and ski hill operators. Several racers initially opposed the form.
"I can see that race organizers want to protect themselves, but sometimes it’s not only the sport itself that causes the accident. It can be negligence too," says Boyd.
A perfect example was Stemmle's 1989 accident in Kitzbühel, which nearly cost him his life. Canadian team coaches had requested more slip skirting on the net at the bottom of the Steilhang, where Stemmle caught his ski, but the request was never acted upon.
"If the organizing committee had listened to the coaches input and complaints that day, the accident would never have happened," says Boyd.
Four years later, Stemmle won a lawsuit when the Austrian high court ruled race organizers were grossly negligent. It was the first time a racer had successfully sued a World Cup race organizing committee.
In 1991 Austrian Gernot Reinstadler was killed during a qualifying run at Wengen, Switzerland. In an accident similar to Stemmle's, Reinstadler caught a ski in a safety net while travelling about 90 km/h.
Since then the FIS has introduced two professional safety directors to the jury for World Cup downhills and super Gs. Slip skirting and even padding has been extended higher up safety nets to prevent skis from catching in netting.
Boyd survived two mistakes last winter because of increased safety measures. At Kitzbühel, he hit the net where Stemmle had injured himself, but because of the extra slip skirting he was able to ski off. At Wengen he bounced off the net on the final turn and came out of it with minor knee ligament damage.
"Stemmle and Reinstadler are responsible for improving the safety where I had trouble. In that context, my knee is just a minor injury. I'm happy to be alive," Boyd said when he returned home from Wengen last year.
Uli Maier died the next day.
But even the statistics for the less serious injuries are scary.
"If you race downhill for five years, there is a 100 per cent certainty that you will have a major ligament knee injury. It is obvious," says Istvan Balyi, the Sport Science and Fitness Director for the national ski team for the last decade.
Dr. Bob Morrell of Richmond was part of a three-year study of the Canadian national team, from September 1984 to April 1987. That study found that the knee was the most common site of injury, increasing from 20 per cent of injuries in 1984/85 to 33 per cent in the last year of the study. The study also revealed lower back injuries were common.
"We found in the study that six out of ten in the ski team had back problems. That was a real surprise to us," says Morrell.
But injury problems are not only prevalent at the national level.
"There are the same problems all the way down the line," explains Morrell. "The only difference is that we may catch it at an earlier stage at the national team, since we do two biomechanical assessments every year. In the clubs it might not be dealt with until the athlete breaks down."
Morrell says of national team members: "Most skiers have some kind of injury all the time. Everyone has problems — and ends up skiing hurt."
One skier Morrell remembers in particular is Whistler's Mike Carney.
"He amazed me. I saw him in Austria once when his ankle was wrecked. I asked him what the doctor had said to him. But he hadn’t seen a doctor... The racers have incredible endurance. It’s a part of life for them to be injured."
Carney had a promising career ahead of him. He won the Nor-Am downhill title in 1988, the Canadian Championships at Lake Louise in 1989, and was the top Canadian — 14th — at the Olympics in Calgary.
For the 89-90 season his goal was to make the top three in the World Cup. A downhill accident in Quesnel put an end to that — and to his career.
During this year's World Cup Carney will undergo a full reconstruction of his knee, not so he can pursue ski racing — just to maintain a decent life.
"I have a different perspective now. Many racers deal with their injury hoping they can still make it. I just want to make sure I can keep up to my kid, run and play with him," says Carney.