Zoricic mother disputes police findings into skier's death

An investigation into the death of Canadian skicross racer Nik Zoricic by Swiss police has concluded the tragedy was a "sporting accident," according to documents obtained by CBC-TV's the fifth estate. But Zoricic's family remains adamant the ski course he had been racing down was fatally flawed.

Canadian skier's death an accident, Swiss police say

Former Canadian National Skicross team member Nik Zoricic of Toronto, who died from head injuries at a World Cup skicross event in Grindelwald, Switzerland, last year.

An investigation into the death of Canadian skicross racer Nik Zoricic by Swiss police has concluded the tragedy was a "sporting accident" and not due to any flaw in the ski course he had been racing down, according to documents obtained by CBC-TV's the fifth estate.

But Zoricic’s family disputes that finding and claims there’s a widespread belief in the world of competitive skicross that his death could have been prevented.

The 29-year-old Toronto resident succumbed to massive head injuries after crashing in the finish area at a World Cup competition in Switzerland last March.

Skicross is a competition in which a group of four competitors race down a course riddled with obstacles such as jumps and turns, reaching speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour.

An image taken from video shows the finish line of the Swiss skicross course where Canadian skier Nik Zoricic died. (Courtesy of Canadian skicross team)

Video of Zoricic’s fatal crash shows him taking the final jump on the race course and landing out of bounds on the right side. He then strikes ungroomed snow, hits safety netting, pinwheels in the air and bounces into a snow bank in the finish area.

CBC’s the fifth estate has obtained a copy of the police report on Zoricic’s death, which has not been released publicly. Written in German, the official English translation of the report describes Zoricic’s death as "a tragic case of sporting accident with fatal outcome" and concludes that, in light of the police probe, "causation by a third party can be excluded."

Accident or flawed design?

Zoricic’s mother, Silvia, rejects the results of the probe, remaining adamant that her son prepared properly for the race and did not die as a result of a freak accident.

"I don't understand how that report can conclude something like that, when the whole world, ski world, is saying that this was absolutely avoidable," she told the fifth estate's Mark Kelley in an interview for an investigative report on the crash to be broadcast Friday on CBC-TV.

The Last Race doc

Watch the fifth estate documentary The Last Race on Friday. It airs on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. (9:30 in Newfoundland and Labrador).

Swiss police opened an investigation immediately after the fatal crash. Their report includes interviews with 10 people, including the designer of the race course and an official with the sport’s governing body, the International Ski Federation (FIS).

The fifth estate’s investigation reveals only two of the approximately 90 skiers who took part in the race were interviewed, even though some had major concerns about the course.

Dave Duncan, a veteran of the Canadian team who was not interviewed by Swiss police, described the narrow finish of the course as "almost a trap" waiting to be sprung.

"If it wasn’t Nik, it was probably going to happen in the heat after that or the heat after that," he said. "It was a matter of time."

The Swiss police’s own 3D computer simulations of the accident show three skiers launching to the right side of the course after the final jump, with Zoricic landing farthest to the right. The 3D models clearly show the narrow landing space Zoricic encountered, and how the safety fencing – instead of absorbing his crash – bounced the skier directly into a snow bank.

The Swiss police do not thoroughly question officials as to why the safety fencing did not break Zoricic’s fall, or why a snow bank would be acceptable in the finish area.

Though police were told the snow bank was part of the timing shack used to clock the races, an expert contacted by the fifth estate said the placement of the shack made it an obvious and unacceptable obstacle that should not have been there. The Swiss police also requested safety reports from the officials who signed off on the course, but the FIS was unable to provide them.

‘Extreme incompetence’

Tim Danson, the Zoricic family lawyer, contends the police report is a whitewash that race organizers are hiding behind. He suggests there were a number of problems with the end of the course, starting with a final jump that steered racers to the right.

French skier Jonas Devouassoux says he had complained about the last jump on the race course. (CBC)

"If you had a normal finish line, Nik would be alive. If it was groomed between the finish line post and the fence, he’d be alive," Danson said. "If you had proper fencing, he’d be alive. Every single one of these things was wrong. This isn’t just incompetence, this is extreme, extreme incompetence and negligence."

In an interview with the fifth estate, Jonas Devouassoux, a French skier who was racing next to Zoricic at the time of his fatal crash, revealed that he had complained to his coach and to the FIS race director, Joe Fitzgerald, that the last jump was hazardous for several reasons.

But Fitzgerald said he does not recall hearing any safety complaints, and maintains that the crash was "an unfortunate, extremely bad accident."

Zoricic’s death has raised questions about how international skicross events are organized by the FIS. The governing body announced new safety measures in November, before this year’s racing season got underway.

From now on, all course designers must be certified and follow written design guidelines. The FIS says it is also creating a manual for skicross course designers. However, it has not acknowledged there were any flaws in the Swiss race course.

While the Zoricic family has said they have no plans to launch a lawsuit, they want officials to acknowledge there were flaws with the course that likely contributed to Nik's death.

"I don't understand why honesty is such a problem for certain organizations," said Danson, the family’s lawyer. "Nothing is going to bring Nik back," he added. "But denying anything wrong happened here, that's an insult to Nik and we're just not going to allow it."

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Watch the fifth estate documentary The Last Race on Friday. It airs on CBC-TV at 9 p.m. (9:30 in Newfoundland and Labrador).