James Lawton: Too many thrills can turn the greatest contest into no more than a lottery

As America's sweetheart Lindsey Vonn crashes out, do athletes have a right to expect safer conditions?
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The Independent Online

There is no argument about the biggest question of these 21st Winter Olympics. It was asked on the morning of a grandiose opening ceremony and it is not likely to go away.

When does sport become unacceptably dangerous? Here the rulers of the Games, which have been forced to operate under the immovable pall of the death through negligence of luger Nodar Kumaratash-vili, have drawn a somewhat squiggly line.

While the half-pipe snowboarding sensation Shaun White was allowed to create his own confected hazards on his way to gold, one of the most naturally gifted skiers in the history of Alpine sport was yesterday provided with a modified course when she sought to win another visit to the top of the podium.

Not that the American superwoman Lindsey Vonn was complaining. She could hardly do that after admitting her sensational swoop for downhill gold on Wednesday involved "fighting all the way" a near three-kilometre course which "was probably the bumpiest I have ever run. Yes, I was definitely fighting it all the way."

Yesterday Vonn was reduced to a mere three more chances to add more gold to her huge impact here after crashing out in the second, slalom stage of the super combined she appeared to have gathered in after another brilliant downhill run.

When her right ski caught a little heavily on a gate she seemed to be bearing down with fresh brilliance on her German friend, and the world's No 1 slalom runner, Maria Riesch. But such are the fine margins on the run down Whistler Mountain.

To the naked eye, Vonn looked as though she had laid down her own heavenly tramlines as she touched speeds of around 65mph without a perceptible error in her first rush to gold the day before.

However, when so many of her key rivals crashed out – most spectacularly the accomplished, five-times Olympic medallist Anja Paerson of Sweden – and the Romanian Edith Miklos had to be put on a stretcher and airlifted from the course it was inevitable there would changes.

Race director Atle Skaardal was obviously not quite certain of what to say when announcing a compromise for yesterday's running of the women's super combined downhill but it would have been stunning if there had not been a breath of ambivalence in the air. Of course, there was rather more than a breath. "We will try to ease things down a bit," announced Skaardal. "I thought the course was acceptable, for sure. But it was very difficult, no question about that."

Difficult? Even the winner Vonn suggested it was more than that and when Paerson, pushing harder than anyone to match the sublime American, flew 90 metres off the last jump before the finish the degree of danger could not be in doubt.

So it was when Miklos crashed horribly and another fine skier, who happened to train as a fighter pilot, wept when she too saw her Olympic ambition disappear in a jolting collision with the earth. Dominique Gisin of Switzerland shook her head and fought the tears. She is not normally the crying kind.

Nor does Reisch qualify as someone who is easily separated from the best of her nerve and her technique. Yet after her downhill run and before yesterday's superb redemption she stood at the foot of the run bewildered by her failure to get closer than two seconds to the American flyer. She said later, "When I was down in the finish area I thought I was going to die. My legs were dead. It was so draining."

Being drained is one thing. Being catapulted through the air without committing a significant technical fault is quite another and so the changes to yesterday's run were more or less impossible to put off. What might have been avoided was the official implication which came when the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre was so dramatically changed after Kumaratashvili's death.

Then the verdict was that death had come through driver error. With that, then, could we presume that the course was guiltless? Hardly, not when, much to the rage of the Canadian team who had become so familiar with its challenges ,the start was moved nearly 200 yards down the track and work was done on the fatal 16th curve and the protective wall.

Even though the most serious consequences had not flowed from the downhill mayhem of Wednesday, it was not easy to see much of a difference in the moral decisions applied to the luge track and the ski run.

Also difficult to push aside is the pressure that refuses to relent in the analysis of the luge tragedy, with the Wall Street Journal this week claiming that the building of a track that proved too fast and too dangerous had been affected by commercial considerations.

Here, surely, the line on danger in Olympic winter sport has to be drawn more cleanly.

The perils of sport requiring downhill descent are historical – and a huge element in their appeal for many of the bravest spirits here in the mountains. However, you cannot make compromises at the heart of that appeal.

Most vitally, you cannot force the greatest skiers and lugers to distrust their ability to set their own limits.

What to watch today: Britons in skeleton competition

Main event

Rudman, Bromley in skeleton final

The finals of the skeleton will (hopefully) see Briton Shelley Rudman attempting to go one better than in Turin four years ago, when she achieved silver. Her partner, Kristan Bromley, is also racing in the skeleton in the men's event. 2.20am, BBC 2

Best of the rest

Alpine skiing (men's super G)

Canadian Manuel Osborne-Paradis will be seeking redemption following his disastrous performance in the downhill event on Monday. Ed Drake, Dave Ryding and Andy Noble provide interest for British audiences. 7.00pm, BBC 2 & Eurosport

Great Britain women's curling

Eve Muirhead and her team take on both Germany and Japan. 3.00am, BBC 2 & Eurosport

Skating(compulsory dance section)

British brother and sister combination John and Sinead Kerr take to the ice. 12.45am, BBC 2 & Eurosport