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Safe or fast? Ski circuit facing a dilemma

VAL GARDENA, Italy - VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — The World Cup ski circuit is facing a significant dilemma less than two months before the Vancouver Olympics.

A spate of serious injuries to skiers has set off rounds of discussions about how to make the sport safer, yet those involved — especially the downhillers — don't want the excitement level — or the fans' "wow" factor — to drop off.

Take it from Scott Macartney, the veteran American speed specialist who suffered severe head trauma in a nasty crash on Kitzbuehel's famed Streif course two years ago.

Macartney was one of six athletes invited to a safety discussion with International Ski Federation race director Guenther Hujara this week.

"We talked about how you can make it as safe as possible while maintaining the part of the sport that everyone loves — the excitement," Macartney said on Thursday. "You can't remove all the danger from it. That's part of the deal."

Downhill world champion John Kucera, World Cup slalom champion Jean-Baptiste Grange and former women's overall World Cup winner Nicole Hosp are among a number of racers already ruled out of the Vancouver Games in February.

Prominent skiers Peter Fill, Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin, TJ Lanning, Lara Gut and Resi Stiegler are also out long-term and there has been an outcry for changes in safety procedures.

"It definitely has come to light with the recent injuries. It's hard to say whether that's a bit of an anomaly," Macartney said. "When you look back at the courses so far, they've been prepped really well. There hasn't been one spot that seemed exceptionally dangerous to me. But with high speed and downhill — I mean we're not playing ping pong, we're running downhill — it's dangerous."

Another veteran downhiller, 38-year-old Marco Buechel of Liechtenstein, was also in on the meeting.

"It was very constructive. Hujara was listening to everything that we said," Buechel said, suggesting several items what could be done to make the airborne portions of races more secure.

"It's not about shaving off jumps. We want to fly far, we like that — it's just we don't like to fly into the flats," Buechel said. "Second, high speed sections when you reach (80-90 mph) need to be smooth. Third, prior to big jumps the snow must be clean, no bumpy rides 20 meters before a jump, to ensure that every racer has a stable position over the jump."

With the current safety worries in mind, the jumps on the Saslong course here are the smallest anyone can remember, yet the skiers still enjoy it.

"This course is as easy as I've ever seen it in terms of its heights and distances on jumps," Macartney said. "It's still very exciting, you've got tons of places where you're getting off the snow. It seems more controlled but it's still a lot of fun. I come down this course with a smile on my face every time, it's just a blast. They did a great job."

Lanning's and Dalcin's crashes were caused in part by contact with gates that wouldn't break apart, and FIS is already in contact with its manufacturer to come up with a new material for gates.

Lanning fractured a vertebra in his neck and shredded his left knee in his crash in Lake Louise, Alberta, last month. He hit a small mound of snow, sending him careening at nearly 75 mph into a gate. Still, he was on his way to staving off the fall when the flag from the gate wrapped around his right ski for an instant, sending him off balance and somersaulting through the air.

"When you look at the crash of TJ Lanning, he hit the gate and the flag and the flag disturbed him and that's why he crashed," Buechel said. "It shouldn't happen. It should stay at the pole, but like paper it should just rip apart."

But FIS needs to find a solution that won't result in broken gates every time a skier hits a gate, which would slow down races and bring more people onto the course to fix them, creating more danger.

"We have to find the balance where it breaks away for safety when it's necessary," FIS men's racing assistant Mike Kertesz said.

Long-term, virtually everyone agrees there should be changes in equipment. Several athletes — such as Grange and Denise Karbon of Italy — have been injured without even falling, with critics blaming overly flexible skis that turn virtually on their own.

"You can't change that midseason but we all agreed some significant study had to be done on what actually is safer, and not to just start changing stuff and seeing if it's safer," Macartney said.

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