Skiing: A snow drop to oblivion; 'You can feel the silence among the guys at the start and see them smile at the finish when they survive'

Andrew Longmore in Kitzbuhel meets the daredevils hooked on the harrowing Hahnenkamm
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The Independent Online
THERE used to be an old house where the starting hut is now. In days gone by, when the British hurled down the Hahnenkamm for fun, races would start from the owner's living-room. The new hut is more functional. Stark inside, solid pine lintels providing the only hint of ornament. The Austrians are suspicious of frippery and the Hahnenkamm has grown in their image. A rough, tough race of brutal simplicity. Here is the top, here the bottom, this the quickest route between them: a drop of nearly 900 metres in just under two minutes with no speed limit.

If you stand next to the starting gate, as the digital clock counts the seconds to oblivion, you can hear the last heaving breaths of the racers, great lungfuls of alpine air which ram the heart back the down the throat and lend new force to the word breathtaking. Perched on top of the Hahnenkamm with a glacier face beneath and only the laws of gravity for company, the hardest of men adopt the simplest of methods. "I put my ski tips either side of Kitzbuhel church spire and I dive," explains Luc Alphand, the 1995 champion. "It's the only way to go."

Most downhillers want to win the Hahnenkamm more than Olympic gold and not just because the winner picks up pounds 25,000, the biggest prize on the World Cup circuit. Respect is earned on the mountain above the demure resort of Kitzbuhel, and fame and fortune if you happen to be Austrian. "This is their Monaco Grand Prix, their FA Cup final," says Graham Bell, the British veteran whose idea of a good downhill course would be a freefall from the Empire State building.

Franz Klammer (four times), Killy, Podborski, Zurbriggen (twice); only true champions dominate the Streif, the run curiously dedicated to the memory of a woman, Rosie Streif. "It's steep, it's hard and it's dangerous," Alphand adds. "It's the only place where you can feel the silence among the guys at the start and see every one of them smile at the finish because they are so happy to survive."

Since the 1930s, the Hahnenkamm races have been the exclusive preserve of the Kitzbuhel Ski Club, just as the All England Club runs Wimbledon. Much as the Austrian Ski Federation would like a larger slice of skiing's biggest money-spinner, the KSC has jealously guarded its commercial and organisational rights. For most of the year, the club takes refuge behind the shuttered windows of a Tyrolean town house just off the main street. For the Hahnenkammerennen the bureau moves to the foot of the mountain, from where justice is dispensed with an iron hand and a strong eye to tradition. Austrians have long since set aside the Hahnenkamm as a weekend of catatonic and schizophrenic celebration.

For two days, the narrow streets of this elegant resort become the battleground between the influences of the old Tyrol and the new internationalism. Celebrities flaunt their expensive presence, hawkers flaunt their wares. BMW have paid pounds 750,000 for sponsors' rights and the chance to flog shining motor cars to the gentry, while down side streets the less wealthy souvenir hunters can buy a giant cow bell for pounds 20. Rock music bursts from doorways on every street corner; on the mountain, racers hurtle to their fate accompanied by the sound of accordion music. When the show is over, reserves of beer are dry, the local economy has been as well-oiled as the visitors and the KSC has tucked away another stash from gate money, television and commercial rights. Profit figures are well guarded but only 15 per cent goes to the federation.

Like Wimbledon, the Hahnenkamm has developed a hypnotic pre-race ritual. Every day, the tension rises; the bib-drawing ceremony to decide the starting order in the main square on Thursday evening, the sprint race on the Friday - won this year to the disgust of the Austrians by the Swiss Didier Cuche - and then the main attraction set before trainloads of garishly clad skiers who are disgorged on to Hahnenkamm station and swarm past the stalls selling gluhwein and the betting tents. The whole of Austria came to watch Klammer fly down the Hahnenkamm; yesterday, in the mysterious absence of their new wonder boy Hermann Maier, withdrawn earlier in the week, 25,000 came to witness a home victory.

Those who stayed away became the unwitting subjects of a ratings war between the national television stations and Eurosport, the satellite channel whose blanket coverage of skiing will culminate in a 16-day round- the-clock ski fest otherwise known as the Winter Olympics. Watch the Hahnenkamm on Eurosport and keep the channel tuned to Nagano in a fortnight. That is the theory, anyway. A lot of expectation was shoehorned into the row of commentary cabins at the side of the finish line, and it was there that an unchoreographed piece of drama unfolded on Friday morning.

Back on his bedroom wall in Toronto, Brian Stemmle has a poster of a skier vaulting down the Hahnenkamm. It is Stemmle himself in a photo taken just five seconds before he crashed, rupturing his spleen in an accident graphically known in the trade as a "wishbone". Stemmle had only a 50 per cent chance of survival but three years on he raced down the Hahnenkamm again. "There were a lot of bad things going through my mind," he says now. "I kept thinking what if it happened again. But slowly I got more confident and I let my sub-conscious take over. I still think about the accident every time I go past, but I say to myself 'forward, forward' because you must never sit back, you have to attack."

On Friday, the Canadian had finished his sprint run and was co-commentating for Eurosport when Roland Assinger inexplicably lost his lower ski on a sweeping right-hand bend and fell heavily into the safety netting. The Austrian lay motionless in the snow surrounded by paramedics before being airlifted to hospital by helicopter with injuries to ankle and shoulder. Downhillers will turn away from accidents on television at the best of times, but for Stemmle watching on the monitor below Assinger's prostrate body unearthed uncomfortable emotions. Silent tears swept over the Canadian's stubbled chin before he recovered enough to give his audience an articulate and expressive description of the scene. "All Roland's friends should know he's in expert hands," Stemmle told viewers without a hint of how he came to that truth.

Assinger's accident on the shortened course reminded everyone that, even with the bypass of the feared Zielschusskante and a re-routing on to the women's slalom course, the Hahnenkamm retains its bite. The top section alone, out of the gate and down through the Mousetrap, the first of the jumps, is a 30-second examination of the soul which would last most of us a lifetime. Graham Bell finds himself dreaming of the Hahnenkamm in mid-summer, so deeply is it buried in his sub-conscious. Stemmle has only to look at his wall. "It's a good reminder of what life is like, that you mustn't take anything for granted. You never know what's just around the corner."