Skiing: Danger on the slopes

It has been called 'the last death-or-glory sport'. After a run of high-profile crashes in the build-up to next week's World Championships, Nick Harris details how top-level events have become even more dangerous – and competitive
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The Independent Online

Daniel Albrecht, one of the world's best young skiers, should be preparing for the World Championships, which start with Monday's opening ceremony in Val-d'Isère in the French Alps and conclude on 15 February after the racing elite have divvied up a mountain of gold, silver and bronze.

On the prospect of a championships of thrills and spills, regardless of the perils, the former British ski racer and veteran commentator Nick Fellows says: "The rewards are higher, the athletes train harder, the back-up is better, the performance is improving and the speeds are faster.

"Yes, it's dangerous, probably the last true death-or-glory sport in the world. Crash in F1 at 100mph and you walk away. Crash at 100mph on the slopes and it could all be over.

"The circuit is full of courses designed around 1900 for 40mph being raced at up to 100mph. And the downhill at Val-d'Isère for the championships is on a course that was so difficult in the 1992 Winter Olympics, they shut it. Scary for some, but that's part of the attraction."

Albrecht will not be there. Instead, the 25-year-old Swiss, the reigning world champion in the Super Combined, remained in a coma last night in Innsbruck University hospital, fighting for his life after a spectacular tumble in Kitzbühel last Thursday.

Albrecht lost control in training towards the bottom of the Streif downhill course and flew through the air for about 40 metres before landing on his back. He crashed over on to his front, then came to a stop, face down, near the finish line. After receiving medical attention at the scene, he was airlifted to hospital by helicopter.

He was diagnosed with brain and lung injuries and put into an induced coma. Since then Albrecht has suffered minor bleeds in his lungs, and pneumonia. The brain injury is said, by a hospital spokesman, to be "without complication", and if the "wake-up procedure" goes to plan after his lungs have healed, a good recovery will be predicted.

Precedent offers hope: a year ago, in the same place on the same course, the American skier Scott Macartney suffered head injuries in a similar accident. He was placed in an induced coma, recovered and, after a year out, is back in action.

The question on the skiing circuit now, though, is: has the game got more dangerous? "Yes" is the consensus. But will that deter many pros? Unlikely, even as you recount other recent serious accidents.

Matthias Lanzinger is a 28-year-old Austrian, a former junior world champion and European gold medallist in 2007. Instead of taking part next week, he will be watching his first world championships as an amputee.

Last March, in a Super-G run at a World Cup event in Kvitfjell, Norway, he crashed into a gate and down a steep slope. His plight was made worse because the release mechanism on his ski binding did not work and he sustained an open leg fracture. A helicopter journey later, he underwent surgery in Lillehammer but he then needed transferring by air again for more specialist care in Oslo. Problems with blood circulation by the time he arrived led to complications, which ended with his left leg being amputated below the knee.

Chemmy Alcott is Britain's best skier, and the first Briton in a long time to threaten decent placings on the World Cup circuit. She will be in Val-d'Isère, intending to take part in all five disciplines open to her, and hoping to give a good account especially in her favourite discipline, the giant slalom. She will, incidentally, be skiing with a broken ankle.

"Incidentally" is the operative work because injury, even serious injury, seems to be something that most skiers not so much ignore but accept as part and parcel of their sport, their lives, the fabric of who they are and what they do.

Alcott started the season well, becoming in a race in Sölden the first British women ever to win a run in a World Cup event, if not the event itself, where she ended 10th. But then she broke her ankle in training in Canada on 16 November.

She eschewed a cast for fear of muscle wastage, spent time in an oxygen tent and had magnetic therapy. A scan on 2 January showed the break is still not healed, but training since has been manageable because of the support her boots provide.

"For a few days is was like going right back to kid steps," she says. "But then I thought, 'Look, let's not fanny around here, let's see if it's going to work or not'. And I went for it and it was amazing. The faster I went, the better it felt.

"Of course, the ankle comes first but I'll go to the world championships and give it my best shot. The hills are difficult and that suits me, more technical courses."

She agrees with the view that, as technology and fitness improve in her sport, the dangers increase. But equally, that is one of the attractions for her and all racers, whatever the perils that befall some of them.

"The talent levels are so high now across the board that you have to push it that much further. If you can't cut it you're in the wrong sport," she said.

"I can guarantee that when [Albrecht] comes out of his coma, the first thing he'll want to do is strap his skis back on. It sounds callous, but that's what drives us. That's sport."

Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal is embodied testimony to that point of view. The poster boy of Norwegian ski racing will also be at the world championships, looking to defend the titles he won in the downhill and giant slalom in 2007. Those triumphs were achieved in February of that year, nine months before the horrific crash that almost cost him his life.

He was on a training run for the Birds of Prey downhill race in Beaver Creek, Colorado, when he crashed on landing after a jump on the run. His skis came off, and the razor edge of one of them impaled his buttock, gouging a six-inch wound that one doctor described at the time as a "laceration that went up near his rectum, his large intestine". Svindal also somersaulted into a safety fence, fracturing his jaw and breaking several bones in his face.

There were concerns that the cut was so deep Svindal's internal organs might have been damaged, so he underwent investigatory surgery to check. He was later able to joke: "Everything was good so they put the stuff back in there and closed it up."

His recovery, no laughing matter, took a year and began with two weeks confined to bed in Vail Hospital with a view of the slopes. That only served as motivation to get back to work, Svindal claims.

"As a racer, you have to have a short memory," he said. "When you're up at the starting gate, and the clock is ticking, you're not going to think 'I'm going to take it easy because I crashed'. You want to be fast."

What nobody could have predicted was that Svindal would come back more determined and more capable than ever. Just last month he returned to World Cup action on the very slopes that almost killed him, and on consecutive days won the downhill and giant slalom races.

Pain on the pistes: The price paid for speed

22 January 2009: Switzerland's Daniel Albrecht, 25, loses control at 70mph in training in Kitzbühel, Austria.

2 March 2008: Austria's Matthias Lanzinger falls badly in a race in Norway, breaking a leg that later requires amputation.

19 January 2008: America's Scott Macartney crashes at 85mph and is knocked unconscious during racing at Kitzbühel.

27 November, 2007: Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal crashes in Beaver Creek, Colorado. He recovered from serious injuries.

15 March 2006: France's Antoine Deneriaz, then Olympic champion, is knocked out in a fall in Are, Sweden.