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Calls for safety grow louder after ski cross death

Race winner Brady Leman of Canada flies above Georgian Bay during a semi-final at the FIS Ski Cross World Cup race at Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ontario, Friday, February 3, 2012. Calls for greater safety on race courses have increased after Sunday's death of Canadian Nik Zoricic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Dave Chidley

The death of Canadian ski cross racer Nik Zoricic will lead to an evaluation of safety measures in international races.

But there are no iron-clad rules for the different terrains or vagaries of winter conditions, says Chris Robinson, World Cup ski cross race organizer at the FIS-approved venue at Collingwood's Blue Mountain.

According to Drew Hetherington, head coach at Whistler Mountain where the Toronto-based Zoricic trained in the summer, a bigger landing area after the final jump might have saved Zoricic's life "but that is speculation."

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A head-and-neck restraint device such as is used in motocross and high-impact sports is being investigated in Italy for possible use in alpine ski races, says Max Gartner president of Alpine Canada, but he doesn't know if it's being considered yet for ski cross.

"Specific regulations are not included," in the selection of a ski cross venue, Robinson said. "Each course is designed according to the terrain and what will make it best."

Likewise, there's no limitation on jumps.

"Organizers propose a site to FIS and who they have in mind as a course designer. If they don't have one, then one is proposed from a list of designers FIS keeps. We've used Jeff Ihaksi, who designed the Olympic snowboard cross and ski cross courses at Whistler (B.C.)," Robinson said.

The course designer comes up and plans out the course. There is a course adviser, usually a past athlete, then a technical delegate, and a technical directors – all before any athletes go down the course. When athletes do try out the course and its features, a first past is made at less than competition speed by one athlete, then two, then three then four. There is also an athlete safety committee, Robinson said and a 'connection' coach who does the competition setting.

"They have a say... ski officials do what they can to ensure a race is as safe as possible, they err on the side of safety. Even then, the course can speed up or slow down because of snow conditions," Robinson said.

"I can't comment on the relative difficulty of the Grindelwald course, but I can tell you that all the protocols and procedures were followed."

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He said the bottom-most feature – or jump – was not unusual on a course and not extreme. It makes for a spectacular, finish "although it's not done for TV purposes. The FIS events are not owned by TV as are the X Games."

The courses in general are 1,050 metres long – give or take 150 metres depending on terrain; and the vertical drop is 180 to 210 metres. In the case of Grindelwald, the course was 1,303 metres long with a vertical drop of 263 metres and an average gradient of 15 degrees. Though the course was longer and had more vertical drop than average, there has been no effort to make steeper courses over the years, says Robinson.

"It's still up to the skill of the course designer.... At Grindelwald people involved in the event are also involved in the World Cup downhill in Wengen, and the technical delegate was an Austrian with the highest level of expertise.

Robinson said from what he's seen of the accident, Zoricic was sitting third and pushing to advance to the final by being in the top two. He said at 29, he was in his prime as a ski cross athlete, despite having knee injuries that cost him his career as an alpine ski racer in downhill and slalom events.

Hetherington, the Whistler Mountain head coach, agreed "it's becoming more usual to have a jump near the end." He said Zoricic, whom he met training at Whistler in the summer, travelled about 40 feet through the air on the final jump, not unusual for a ski cross racer.

Zoricic landed on B-netting to his right, Hetherington said, which is designed to stall the lateral movement of a out-of-control skier "but nothing can stop a vertical fall... It has to be used properly, and it's tough to imagine the different scenarios when (FIS officials) put out the nets. I can't say it was wrong or a problem... Perhaps (the investigation into the accident will say) the landing area could have been bigger."

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James Christie written sports for the Globe on staff since 1974, covering almost all beats and interviewed the big names from Joe DiMaggio, to Muhammad Ali, to Jim Brown to Wayne Gretzky. Also covered the 10 worst years in Toronto Maple Leafs hockey history. More

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