French skier's death highlights dangers of Winter Olympic sports

This week's death of French downhill racer David Poisson brought universal mourning but little to no public outcry regarding a lack of safety associated with his pursuit.

Athletes' risking disaster is part of the Games' allure

French skier David Poisson, shown here in January 2017 after crashing out of a race in Germany, was killed this week after falling during a training run in Alberta. (Alain Grosclaude/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

Former Canadian alpine ski racer Brian Stemmle was nearly killed when he crashed at the famed Kitzbuehel downhill in 1989.

"We aren't prepared for how badly we can be hurt," Stemmle, who is now a skiing analyst on television, said recently. "But there is an acceptance with every athlete. We are acutely aware of the danger and accept the risk every time we buckle our boots up."

Stemmle recovered from a broken pelvis, massive internal injuries and a severe infection suffered that horrifying day on the Hahnenkamm to race for nine more World Cup seasons. In total he appeared at four Olympic Winter Games (three after the accident), which are fraught with danger on almost every front.

It is, as Stemmle suggests, at least part of the mystique of the Games.

"High risk and high speed are what make the Winter Olympics sexy," he said. "The element of danger is constantly there in every sport."

This week's death of French downhill racer David Poisson in a training crash at Nakiska, Alta., is a case in point. While he was universally mourned by teammates, rivals and everyone involved with skiing, there has been little to no public outcry regarding a lack of safety associated with his pursuit.

Similarly, a recent discussion regarding the debilitating effects of concussion on many high-performance, winter athletes, focussed more on recovery and return to the field of play than it did on elimination of their occurrence. In other words, brain injuries are seen by even the experts as inevitable when competing on ice and snow.

Consider the the 2010 death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who was killed during a training run prior to the Vancouver Olympics. The luge competition proceeded in spite of the crash and track improvements and equipment modification continue to drive the speed of racing ever higher.

In 2012, Canadian ski cross racer Nik Zoricic was killed in a collision during a race in Switzerland. Course alterations followed in the wake of the incident, but high-speed skiing in tight quarters with multiple athletes on the same track is still the order of the day in that sport.

In 2012, Toronto's Nik Zoricic was killed in a crash during a ski cross race. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

At the Winter Olympics there are a multitude of things that can threaten an athlete's life.

It's the bottom line and seemingly an agreed-upon part of the business.

Skeleton racers hurtle head first down an icy chute at well over 120 km per hour. Bobsleighs regularly tip over at high speed and are virtually unstoppable once on the slide.

In pairs figure skating, a man throws a woman into the air while she twists horizontally in free flight. A missed catch and fall to the ice could be calamitous. 

Ski jumpers fling themselves off an inconceivably high in-run ramp to soar a hundred metres or more, intent on landing safely on two thin boards.

Razor-sharp blades

In short track speed skating, velocity is enormous, traffic is riotous, and crashes, where razor-sharp skate blades come into play, are just another part of the game.

And if this isn't enough, the Winter Olympics are constantly upping the ante when it comes to risk and the potential for danger. 

Enter the so-called "extreme" or "action" sports. Freestyle skiing and snowboarding dine out on flips and considerable air time. The equation for success means accepting the notion that the more difficult or spectacular the trick is, you can expect the greater reward.

"Yes, danger is essential," said professional snowboarder and TV analyst Craig McMorris.

"Putting oneself in a risky situation and doing it with grace is really what action sport is all about. The athlete who can perform the most difficult trick, over the most high-consequence feature, with the most style, will win."

The sport of ski cross puts skiers within close confines at high speed. (Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press)

McMorris helped to rescue his superstar brother Mark, an Olympic medalist and 2018 hopeful, from a life-threatening backcountry crash near Whistler, B.C., last March. 

Mark McMorris has sufficiently recovered from a broken jaw, broken arm, ruptured spleen, pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed lung to insist he's ready to compete for a gold medal when big air snowboarding makes its Olympic debut in Pyeongchang less than a year later.

Big air, which sees athletes launch themselves off a huge scaffold to gyrate insanely and travel great distances before landing, is arguably the riskiest Olympic discipline yet. But its arrival is eagerly anticipated in spite of the potential for disaster.

"Would the downhill be great if racers weren't riding on the edge of control and risking falls at high speeds? Would hockey be great if it was non-contact?" Craig McMorris asked. "It doesn't matter how good you are, the reality of skiing and snowboarding are thus. The point I'm trying to make is risk of injury is essential to many sports, not just action sports."

Stemmle tends to agree, even in light of his personal and near-death experience.

"We don't expect injury is going to happen to us. Problem is, it inevitably happens. And when it does, invincibility vanishes and can rarely be recovered," he said.

"Winter athletes don't compete on everyday surfaces. Winter Olympians compete on frozen water. And when you're travelling at excessive speeds on a slick surface, anything can happen and often does. That's why I love the unpredictability of the Winter Olympics."

It's unquestionably part of the allure for athletes and fans alike.

There is the severity of the season and the inherent risks involved with conquering mountains to take into account.

The Winter Olympics are undeniably the Games where danger becomes a key element to the plot.

That reality only serves to heighten the drama.


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