PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic of, Feb 23 – Ski cross is all about the spills and thrills, racers jockeying for pole position with elbows and sticks down a testing, jump-loaded course before a baying crowd.
But three horror crashes at the Pyeongchang Olympics have highlighted just how dangerous the high-octane event really is.
The freestyle skiing discipline made its Olympics debut in 2010 and features four skiers at a time racing side-by-side down a winding track encompassing both naturally occurring terrain and artificial features like sharp turns, rolls and a number of jumps.
It throws up some absolutely breath-taking racing.
Canada’s Brady Leman won the men’s ski cross while teammate Kelsey Serwa claimed gold in the women’s competition.
But those victories were bittersweet as compatriots India Sherret and Christopher Delbosco both sustained gruesome crashes.
Delbosco suffered a broken pelvis, four fractured ribs and a bruised lung, while Sherret was also stretchered off after her own particularly nasty landing off a jump.
“She was taken to hospital where she is being assessed. She is in stable condition,” the Canadian Olympic Committee said without giving further details.
France’s Terence Tchiknavorian also underwent surgery on a fractured tibia sustained in the men’s final.
The action comes in rapid fire, run over a knock-out format that keeps the crowd entertained for a full 90 minutes.
Two hands gripping the bar, ski tips rammed up against a metal gate over miniature Olympic rings, racers align at the start.
As soon as the gate drops, the racers launch themselves off, straight into a vertical drop that demands all their athleticism to climb out of a halfpipe and into a series of rolling bumps that usually breaks up the field.
Racing on skis used in the giant slalom in alpine skiing, the skiers face a course in the Pheonix Snow Park at Pyeongchang which features 15 jumps, large and small, some coasting close to the polished surface, others sending them flying dramatically high into the air.
There can be no doubting the gripping visual spectacle the race offers, the crowd roaring in gladitorial unison as racers fall and offering whoops of delight with some “big air” into the finish area.
– Stunned silence –
The scene was set in the very first of the opening eight rounds Friday, when, amid a clattering of skis and deafening bass-heavy rock music, defending champion Marielle Thompson of Canada crashed out to oohs and aahs from the crowd.
Reaching speeds of up to 60kph (40mph), there are gliding sections where racers like silver medallist Britanny Phelan of Canada, an ex-alpine skier who finished 15th in the Sochi slalom, can make up valuable tenths of a second.
But it all ultimately comes down to risk management over the jumps.
The crowd was left in stunned silence Friday when one race was projected on the big screen as seen from a camera mounted on the helmet of Czech Republic’s Nikol Kucerova.
“They asked me to do it and I said ‘sure, I don’t care’,” she said. “I am the best cameraman, or woman, at the Olympics!”
Asked about some spectators appearing to enjoy the crashes in ski cross, Kucerova replied: “I hope they don’t, because I can tell them that it really, really hurts.”
Men’s gold medallist Leman said he and his rivals knew when there was a crash in a race ahead of them.
“There’s no secret when there’s a hold — we know why at the top, for sure. You never try to ask about it and just stay focused,” the Canadian said.
“The organisers worked pretty hard to make the course safe.
“But in this sport there’s a lot of risk and especially at the Games guys are going to risk it a little more.”
Briton Emily Sarsfield admitted she felt fear every time she skied.
“It’s part and parcel of it, every time I go down a ski cross track I am scared. If you are not, you are not human,” she said.
“I think everyone will start wearing airbags, the courses are getting built so big in ski cross now. Some of them are not humanly possible.”