A Tragic Break

Injury Overshadowed the World Cup Ski Season and Reopened a Fiery Debate About Racing Safety

News | Christian Cummins | April 2008

Matthias Lanzinger after the accident (Photo: zisch.ch)

It was a moment of television that turned your stomach. High speed crashes are depressingly frequent in the risky world of alpine ski racing, but this, you knew instinctively, was a bad one. In the penultimate Super Giant Slalom race of the World Cup season in Kvitfjell, Norway, the 27-year old Austrian skier Matthias Lanzinger, pushing hard for a top placing, chose the tightest line into the final curve, slightly lost his balance, and clattered with his left leg into one of the tightly screwed red control gates that mark the course.

Lanzinger was travelling at close to 90 miles. The impact must have been brutal. The leg was clearly instantly broken. To the horror of those watching in the stands below and the millions following the race on television, his tightly set bindings failed to release the left ski and, as Lanzinger slid violently into the safety netting, the leg was roughly jolted up and down into concrete-hard snow.

For over 45 minutes the Salzburg born skier, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, was treated at the side of the track as fans prayed that the damage wasn’t as bad as it looked. It seemed an eternity until he was air-lifted to hospital. When the diagnosis came it was sobering: There had been a double bone break - both shin and fibula had been fractured, but more seriously it was an open-break that had damaged blood vessels and was disrupting circulation in the 27-year-old skier’s leg.

Three days later came the news that shocked Austria. Despite several operations in Oslo, the battle to restore circulation had been lost.  On Tuesday morning surgeons Ullevål amputated Lanzinger’s left leg below the knee.

After the shock came the recriminations. Ski racing is a sport with inherent risks that all athletes recognise. Early in the season, defending World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal fell so badly on his sharpened ski edges in Colorado that doctors had to provide him with an artificial colon. In 2001 Swiss skier Silvano Beltrametti was left in a wheel-chair after a crash during training; and no Austrian can forget the tragic death of young mother Ulrike Maier in a race accident in the early 1990’s. Tragedy is no newcomer to the World Cup circuit.

But Lanzinger’s case was different, or as veteran Liechtenstein skier Marco Büchel put it a "whole new category". Many people felt, and feel, that the organisers had put the athletes lives at risk to economise on the budget.

The main accusation the race organisers have to deal with was the absence at Kvitfjell of an adequate emergency helicopter. While Lanzinger still lay on the snow, frantic efforts were being made to remove the passenger seat of a tourist helicopter to allow the injured skier to be air-lifted to hospital. The delays didn’t end there. The pilots first flew to the nearest town of Lillehammer rather than directly to the Norwegian capital Oslo, but when the patient arrived in the provincial town, the Austrian medical team on board found that the local hospital lacked the facilities necessary to treat such a complicated injury. By the time that Lanzinger’s leg was being operated on in Oslo 5 full hours had passed since the crash. And with deep tissue damage every minute counts.

Skiing holds such a prime place in Austrian culture that even the Chancellor felt obliged to call for changes:

"The lacking safety measures at these races are shocking," Alfred Gusenbauer told the Austrian Press Agency, when he was told the news of the amputation. "I can’t understand how a World Cup race could be organized at such a low safety level."

The incident in Norway certainly compared poorly with an accident earlier in the season at Austria’s premier World Cup ski event, the downhill at Kitzbühel in January. There, American skier Scott Macartney suffered a spectacular fall at 88mph during which his protective helmet came off and he lost consciousness. He is said to have suffered bruising to the brain, but the swift air-lifting to a state of the art clinic in Innsbruck, where he was put into an induced coma, was widely credited with the skier’s remarkably quick recovery that saw talks of a competitive comeback just weeks after the crash. Every accident is different, but it’s not surprising that the calls for the safety standards common to Austria and Switzerland to be implemented everywhere.

Gian Franco Kasper, the head of the International Ski Federation, the body that oversees World Cup racing, denied any safety lapses, telling the press in a statement that, despite eye-witness reports to the contrary, that the helicopter was "fully equipped for the transport of injured athletes." He then incensed many Austrians by claiming that "many racers are too highly motivated, which often results in their trying to execute the impossible, instead of adjusting their style of skiing to the race course and their current and real abilities."

Retired skier and Austrian media figure Armin Assinger understood the comments as an insult to the injured Lanzinger and as a clear misunderstanding of a sport where skiers are constantly on the limit in races that are sometimes won by a hundredth of a second. In a round-table discussion of ski race safety, broadcast on Austrian public television a week after Lanzinger’s crash, Assinger called for Kaspar’s resignation. Hans Pum, the Alpine Director of the Austrian Team, which has vowed that it will continue to support Lanzinger both personally and financially, called for the a summit of ski industry representatives to discuss speed, equipment and course preparation.

"The safety and the health of the athletes come first, he concluded"

While a team of lawyers in Vienna is investigating whether any breaches of safety or medical regulations really are directly linked to the accident’s tragic outcome, there are few positives to find in this story. The former junior World Champion Lanzinger’s career has been ended before the breakthrough many expected ever materialised. The dismissive comments of Kasper have not reassured many ski fans that changes will be implemented. Meanwhile, the video of the tragic crash has become a major hit for voyeurs on YouTube. The whole incident has hugely overshadowed an exciting season and leaves the ski fan feeling rather sick.

Yet the response of Matthias Lanzinger himself has been inspiring. This is a man who in his rare moments of consciousness during the air-lift, insisted on telephoning his travelling room-mate Georg Streitberger, who won the race that would cost Lanzinger his leg. A week after the amputation, to the surprise of the psychologists supporting him, the patient was reportedly transfixed in front of his bed side television cheering on his team-mates at the World Cups finals in Italy.

At a press conference he refused to succumb to self-pity or blame, and credited the public’s messages of sympathy for his positive state of mind, adding that he looking forward to beginning his rehabilitation. That’s going to be a long road with surely many troughs as well as peaks. But you can’t help feeling that if anyone is equipped to deal with the blow, it’s the remarkably young skier from Salzburg, Matthias Lanzinger.

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