Theater of Nightmares

Austria’s most renowned ski slopes are also the most dangerous

News | Christian Cummins | February 2009

Swiss Skier Daniel Albrecht is air-lifted from Kitzbühel after accident (Photo: Giovanni Auletta)

"It’s every skier’s dream to win in Kitzbühel," exclaimed the delighted Swiss skier Didier Defago, 31, who, in the autumn of his career, had just won the most prestigious race on the World Cup calendar – the "Hahnenkahn" downhill.

For a skier, a victory on the ferocious and tradition-steeped Streif downhill course in Kitzbühel has a similar emotional significance to a final victory on Wimbledon’s Centre Court for a tennis professional. This is the big one - 3.3 kilometers of iced bumps, turns, and jumps, a crowd of up to 80,000 people greeting you in the finishing arena and, if you win, a slice of skiing immortality. One-off wonders have won at the Olympics, but it seems only the best of the best can cope with skiing’s most challenging race. There is no annual sporting event in this country to compare with the Hahnenkahn weekend and every year the race attracts the great and the good of Austria and neighboring Germany - the politicians and celebrities – who tuck into fine food and, from the safety of the VIP stand, watch young men hurtle down the heavily-iced snow of the legendary course.

But there is a dark shadow to the "glitz of Kitz." While Didier Defago was being celebrated, his teammate Daniel Albrecht lay a hundred kilometers away in Innsbruck in a coma after suffering brain and lung injuries in an accident on the Streif. During training on Jan. 22, two days before the night race, Albrecht had lost control on the final jump. The 25-year-old flew through the air for about 40 meters, landed on his back, and immediately lost consciousness. After he was whisked away by a helicopter to a clinic in Innsbruck, doctors put him in an induced coma to protect his organs.

The accident almost exactly mirrored the accident of Scott Macartney of the United States, who lost control on the same jump a year before and suffered a brain contusion after slamming his head on the snow. The brutal impact of the crash caused Macartney to experience convulsions as he slid unconscious over the finishing line. For some reason, the television director decided to zoom in on his jerking body. It was a sickening moment that drove home some of the brutal realities of this sport.

The jumps are there to test the skiers to their limits, of course, and perhaps that is a reason why only the very top skiers have managed wins at Kitzbühel. But they are also there for the thrill of the sport, for our entertainment – it’s no surprise that for the opening and closing sequences of their coverage of ski racing, directors the world over choose to play the day’s most spectacular crashes.

It’s all about acceptable risk. Part of the sport’s inherent attraction is the danger skiers face, risks they are well-aware of when they compete.  In fact, they have to sign legal disclaimers before being allowed into the start-hut.

But the challenge is to find a balance between keeping alive the sport’s spirit while limiting the danger as much as possible. With Albrecht still in a coma, and only a few months after the young Austrian Matthias Lanzinger lost a leg to amputation after a crash in Norway last spring, you have to ask whether that balance at the moment is quite right. No one wants to sanitize the sport – downhill racing will always be a risky occupation. But neither should the racer’s safety be sacrificed for the voyeurism of the spectators.

Austrian ski legend and two-time overall World Cup winner Karl Schranz, 70, believes that the organizers should make the course safer. The final ridge of Streif, the one that caught Albrecht out, has been sharpened into the shape of a ramp.

"It’s not necessary to have such a difficult jump at the end of such a testing run," he told the Austrian Press Agency, "Kitzbühel isn’t a ski-jumping tournament." Besides, the Kitzbühel race is usually decided before the final ridge so the question is why we need to see tired athletes fly through the air at that stage? He pointed out that the traditional S-bend at the end of the equally historic Lauberhorne race in Wengen had been modified for safety reasons.

Another former Austrian ski racer Hansi Hinterseer was more philosophic, saying that downhill was a "tight-rope walk" and that the sport was simply "brutal." Hinterseer himself, it should be noted, specialized into slower paced technical events.

Macartney made a full recovery after being awakened from his coma last year, and doctors are reservedly optimistic about Albrecht’s prognosis. Defago dedicated his win to his injured teammate, saying he hopes it will inspire him to a quick and complete recovery.

While the debate about safety and tradition rages on, it is left to the rest of us to recognize just how brave these athletes are. The defending World Cup champion Bode Miller, a man always good for a quote, recently confided to the Austrian daily Österreich that he felt that Austrian Hermann Maier’s haul of two gold medals at Nagano deserved more respect than the record fourteen gold medals won by fellow American swimmer Mark Phelps.  After all, Phelps wasn’t risking "breaking his neck" in his pursuit of glory.

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