Controversy mars Aspen downhill
December 10, 2007
ASPEN ” Sweden’s Anja Paerson was stewing Sunday at the bottom of Aspen Mountain. It wasn’t because of her fall six gates into her morning slalom run.
No, the two-time World Cup overall champion was still thinking about Saturday’s downhill, which was called prematurely because of flat light, steady snowfall and fog.
Paerson said Sunday that the downhill should have never taken place. She said the two violent crashes that led to racers being carted off the hill in sleds en route to the hospital could have been avoided.
She suggested that race officials, perhaps prompted by the pressure of putting on a race for a large live TV audience in Europe, didn’t fully evaluate the risks. Ultimately, she said, they proceeded without the best interests of the competitors at heart.
“I understand that we have to do races, and I understand that it costs a lot of money, and there’s a lot of money running this circuit, but sometimes we have to look what’s happened,” she said. “We’re playing around with lives here.”
Austria’s Alexandra Meissnitzer, the 13th competitor out of the starting gate Saturday, veered off the Ruthie’s course, lost control in the soft snow and tumbled into the safety netting. Teammate Nicole Hosp, slated to race directly after Meissnitzer, opted instead to withdraw.
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Austrian coaches then decided to pull three others out of the competition.
“It’s also really hard for a racer to stay up there at the start and take the decision to not go,” Paerson said. “It’s not a decision we should have to make.”
Hosp’s move caused commotion in the starting gate, American Lindsey Vonn said Saturday. And while she admitted she contemplated following suit, the 23-year-old from Vail chose to race.
“I don’t think it was really that bad,” said Vonn, who felt it was important to race in front of home fans in what was the first women’s World Cup downhill in the U.S. in a decade.
Anne-Sophie Barthet’s spill changed everything. The 19-year-old racer from France tore several knee ligaments in a violent fall that was captured on the jumbotron. Spectators and fellow competitors looked on in stunned silence as Barthet’s shrill screams ” recorded by on-course microphones ” filled the stadium.
Chief of race Jim Hancock and other officials, who were constantly conferring during the event, decided to cut the competition short soon after.
“The weather was fine when we started … the fog got too thick,” Hancock said. “It wasn’t safe to send them down anymore.”
Paerson thinks that decision should’ve been made before the start, and said she is planning on filing a formal protest.
“… We put a lot of effort into this year testing inside the skis so we’re not going to injure ourselves, and then look how they start the race [Saturday],” Paerson said. “I would ask that, OK, I don’t think it’s just the skis … [Saturday], with that course, of course we’re going to injure ourselves.”
Weather and injuries are inherent risks that have always been associated with ski racing, Hancock said.
“This is a very dangerous sport. These athletes take a lot of risks,” he said. “Racers can get injured in a run on a perfect day. It’s really unfortunate we had two crashes [Saturday].”
Paerson believes it was officials who were taking the risk in their haste to generate television revenues, publicity, and make sure the funds they allocate for each race isn’t squandered.
Saturday’s race was broadcast live during primetime in Europe, coverage that typically reaches 35 to 55 million viewers, according to statistics quoted to The Aspen Times by John Rigney, vice president of sales and events for the Aspen Skiing Co.
Paerson insinuated that officials are going forward with races at all costs ” and that includes safety.
Hancock understands the pressure. After all, Aspen lobbied for and successfully landed a downhill, ski racing’s premier event, for the first time in 12 years and first for the women here since 1988. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association believed this event was the ideal forum to showcase a young team that thrives on speed. And hosting a World Cup race keeps “Aspen on the radar,” Rigney said.
Everyone had something invested this weekend, he said.
“There’s definitely pressure to run these races, but the pressure comes from all sides,” he said. “There were coaches that wanted to race. There were racers who said, ‘The light is OK. I want to go.'”
Vonn wonders why Paerson chose the day after the downhill to speak out. She wonders why Paerson didn’t voice her concerns to fellow competitors who, if they were in agreement, could also have addressed the FIS.
“It would have been something to protest before the race [Saturday],” Vonn added. “It doesn’t really do anything to protest after the race … It’s the wrong way to go about it. We should have an athlete meeting, that usually happens if we think it’s too gnarly. I think most everyone was thinking it was going to be OK. It was a little bit sketchy, but sometimes you just have to go with it.”
Julia Mancuso, the other 23-year-old star on the U.S. Ski Team, was a little more blunt in her assessment of Paerson’s rumblings.
“She complains a lot,” Mancuso said.
She went on to say, however, that she felt Saturday’s conditions made it difficult to really let loose ” certainly not the ideal for downhill, which rewards skiers who push the envelope.
“I think sometimes for sure they keep sending people because they need to get the race done,” she said. “I think the hardest thing is, when you’re slipping down a course, you can say it’s as safe as you think until you’re running it 100 mph or 80 mph. Anyone can make the decision that it looks safe, but they’re not the ones running it. I think that’s what’s really difficult. Even when I was slipping it, I was like, oh, it’s pretty soft, but I did not think it was as soft as it really was.”
Vonn also insinuated that Paerson is a chronic complainer, and that Sunday’s remarks won’t be the last time she calls out race organizers.
“Anja wants to form a protest over every single race, so, I mean, it’s not something really new,” Vonn added.
Hancock said he and his crew fulfilled all of FIS’ stringent requirements and were prepared to host the downhill. As conditions changed, he and the jury ” a group that includes him, chief race director Atle Skaardal, race director Jan Tischauser and a technical delegate from the FIS ” acted accordingly.
“It’s important for them and their coaches to decide that if they don’t feel safe enough to run, they don’t run,” He added.
Paerson said she is used to the criticism. It will do little to soften her stance, however.
“I’m not sure if the FIS is really interested in what I have to say, but at least I’m going to try to make my voice heard,” she said. I feel responsible, especially for my team. The French girl and the other girl [Saturday], it’s tough to see them go down.”