Danger and downhill go hand in hand

By Alan Baldwin

WHISTLER (Reuters) - No matter how many precautions organizers may take, danger is as much a part of Olympic downhill racing as snow and ice.

The death of a Georgian athlete in training for the luge competition in Whistler on Friday has focused attention on safety and the risks that go with the more extreme winter sports.

Monday's showcase men's downhill could see spills as well as thrills and officials are frank about the dangers the skiers are exposed to in a sport that has suffered fatalities at World Cup level in recent decades.

"I am very often asked 'What can you do to keep this sport safe?'," Men's Alpine race director Guenther Hujara told Reuters on Sunday.

"And I must always answer: 'We cannot keep a sport safe which is based on risk'.

"The racers put their helmet on and they push out of the start gate and they know exactly what they do," he added, standing near the chairlift leading to the fog-shrouded Dave Murray piste.

"We can install 10,000 safety installations, we can install everything we want but a crash can be caused by a racer's mistake...and the consequences might be dramatic," added the German.

GUT-WRENCHING

Whistler's piste is not as gut-wrenching a prospect as Kitzbuehel's vertiginous Hahnenkamm but the mountain should still be handled with care. A fall on rough ice at 130kph is always going to hurt.

If all goes well, the cow bell-clanging spectators will gasp in awe and admiration at the downhill daredevils and go home happy after a fun day out in the sunshine.

The racers will reach the finish with burning legs and a buzz of adrenaline that the watching crowd, their cheers drowning out the pumping mood music, can only begin to comprehend.

Former Canadian downhiller Brian Stemmle, who survived a horrifying crash at Kitzbuehel in 1989, said racing was always a combination of agony and ecstasy.

"It's terrifying," he said. "You are looking between your ski tips at the first gate and looking back at your start coach and saying 'Do I have to go? I don't really want to," he recalled.

"But once you make it to the bottom you go 'Man, that was so exhilarating. I just want to do it again. It gets you out of your comfort zone, which a lot of people in the general public don't get to do."

Organizers, however, must always be braced for the worst.

"Believe me, we sometimes do not sleep well because we have to consider everything," said Hujara. "But we cannot keep everything under control."

Stemmle, who successfully sued after the Kitzbuehel crash that smashed his pelvis and left him in hospital for months, said organizers should never rest on their laurels.

"I think they are trying but there is always something," he said. "There is always more that can be done."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)