Tough questions are now being raised about ski cross course safety following the death of Toronto-based skier Nik Zoricic in Grindelwald, Switzerland on Saturday.
Is the close-quarters, fiercely competitive sport, known as roller-derby on snow or NASCAR on skis, too dangerous? Are the safety nets used – designed to stop lateral motion – protective when an airborne skier comes down vertically from a jump out of control?
An investigation into the "freak accident" will take place, says Alpine Canada president Max Gartner. But already defenders of the sport were marshalling arguments.
"There's risks associated with the sport, with pretty much everything I do in life," said Ashleigh McIvor, the Canadian woman who won the first Olympic ski cross gold medal. She has already lost one freestyle ski compatriot this year with the accidental death of X Games champion Sarah Burke in training.
"I've lost a lot of friends in the mountains. But my friends from the cities have lost a lot of friends in car accidents... It's probably just as safe [skiing]as we are driving down the highway," McIvor said.
"I'd say it's a freak accident from here," said Gartner, who learned of the accident in a 4 a.m. call to his room at Fernie, B.C. "They're extremely rare in the sport so I qualify it as that right now...I'd say the ultimate extreme sport is probably downhill (ski) racing." He disagreed that the sport had become too dangerous.
"I'd say there's an inherent risk in all the sports...I'd not qualify ski cross as any more dangerous than any of the other sports." Gartner said.
Zoricic, 29, suffered "severe neurotrauma" according to a statement by the governing FIS. The skier was in the round of eight when he went wide over the final jump, about 50 metres from the end of the course. Zoricic landed on safety nets at the side of the course. Television pictures showed Zoricic tumbling through the nets as his skis and poles were thrown clear. Ski cross director David Ellis was nearby but couldn't stop him. The Canadian team said Zoricic was pronounced dead at a hospital in Interlaken, where he had been airlifted from the course by helicopter.
Ski cross. a sport in which fourth athletes are on a jump-filled course trying to beat one another in a race' is a sport in which Canadian athletes have excelled.
When McIvor heard rumours the International Olympic Committee was considering the inclusion of skicross for the 2010 Olympics, she wrote an essay for her University of British Columbia English class arguing for its addition. She compared ski cross to BMX racing, which was about to make its debut at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The IOC made it official in November 2006, granting ski cross entry to the Vancouver Games. The success and popularity of snowboard cross, which debuted at the 2006 Torino Olympics, factored into the decision..
Zoricic was an alpine ski racer before taking up ski cross, making his World Cup debut in the sport in January 2009. He earned his first World Cup points a month later. He recorded his first World Cup podium Jan. 7, 2011 with a second-place finish before earning a bronze medal Jan. 15 in Les Contamines, France.
McIvor said FIS officials go over the course before a World Cup competition to make sure safety measures are in place.
"At every single event they overdo it, making the course safer. The course builder has built this course that we think will be fun and FIS comes in and does its absolute best to make it safe -- to the point that some of the athletes go, 'What? That was going to be fun.'
"I don't think any fingers should be pointed at any of the organizations or anything like that," McIvor said. "The fact is we do these sports because we love them and there are risks associated with them and there's only so much we can do to minimize those risks."
Organizers abandoned Saturday's World Cup events for men and women, and the scheduled World Cup final races at the same venue Sunday.
"The organizing committee, FIS and Swiss Ski express their deepest condolences to the family and friends of Nik Zoricic and the Canadian Ski Team," the statement said. Condolences also came from the Canadian Olympic Association and from Bal Gosal, Minister of State for Sport, who called Zoricic "an exceptional athlete... whose dedication to his sport will serve as an inspiration to others."
Grief counsellors were made available for Alpine Canada personnel. Gartner said he was unable to comment about what roles, if any, course safety and course design had in the accident because he was in Canada at the time of the event. But he added the FIS has very stringent regulations.
"What I feel confident in is there are rules and regulations, there's a FIS race director who inspects the course and there are coaches," Gartner said. "I'm sure all the protocol has been followed, I'm sure there's going to be more investigation into the accident after the fact."
Grindelwald has been on the ski cross World Cup circuit since 2005. The Swiss village beneath the Eiger and Jungfrau mountain peaks – the Canadian team was taken to Jungfrau to await news on Zoricic early in the day -- was hosting a meeting for the fifth straight year.
Christoph Egger, president of the race organizing committee called ski cross a sport "where four racers fight to win a race. In these circumstances there is a risk to fall or risk of injury, and since today we know there is a risk for death."
He said "we put the fences there because you have to protect the racers for the finish area."
Race organizers will work with FIS and the Swiss ski federation to analyze the accident and course security.
Egger said that "normal process" also requires an accident investigation by legal officers from the canton (state) of Bern.
Asked if the any talk of special neck braces used in other collision sports to mitigate serious head injuries, Gartner said it was one of the possibilities being looked at in alpine events. " There is a study in place right now in Italy on the Alpine side looking into that," Gartner said.
Ken Read, director of winter sport for the Own the Podium program and former president of Alpine Canada, said FIS would begin an investigation into the accident to determine what happened and what, if anything, needs to corrected.