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Downhillers prove they are a rare, crazy breed

IT takes more than a crash, no matter how brutal, to turn downhill ski racers into a rational breed.

For the men and women who hurtle down vertiginous, rock-hard pistes at high speed, their bodies covered only by a thin layer of synthetic material, danger is just part of the deal.

Definitely brave and arguably mad, the daredevil racers are preparing to tackle the extremely steep Bellevarde piste at the world championships that began yesterday in the French Alps resort of Val d'Isere.

One racer who should have been there, Swiss super-combined world champion Daniel Albrecht, was still in an induced coma after his horrendous accident in training in Kitzbuehel last month.

Not even seeing Albrecht fly through the air and land heavily on his back after losing his balance off the final jump of the awe-inspiring Streif piste could dent the determination of his fellow downhillers.

"Of course it's difficult and we talked about it between us a lot but what we have to do is carry on doing our job and take all the risks that go with it," said Switzerland's Didier Defago, who won the Kitzbuehel downhill.

Fully aware of the dangers of their sport, downhill racers cope by laughing it off or putting it out of their minds.

Austria's Hermann Maier showed what downhillers are made of when he casually brushed the snow off his skisuit after cartwheeling through the air in a crash during the Olympic downhill at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

The former bricklayer went on to win super-G and giant slalom gold medals a few days later.

While doctors were continuing to monitor bleeding in the 25-year-old Albrecht's lungs, coaches and officials said there was nothing wrong with safety measures at Kitzbuehel and the skier was to blame for the crash.

"He was leaning backwards too much when he took that jump," Swiss head coach Martin Rufener said. "It was a human mistake."

Safety regulations were not at fault, said the International Ski Federation (FIS).

"There's nothing to change in all the preparations we had done, nothing to change with the piste or the jump," FIS race director Guenther Hujara said.

The Bellevarde piste, which was designed for the 1992 Olympics and will host the men's super-G today and the blue-riband downhill on Saturday, is the steepest of slopes with a vertical drop of 959 meters for a total length of 2,988 meters.

Since the days when skiers raced with no helmets and virtually no protection on the sides of the piste, safety has been constantly upgraded with the introduction of mandatory training runs, reinforced safety netting and various other measures.

At the same time, speed has steadily increased courtesy of research on suits and skis, and accidents continue to occur.

"The only way to avoid the risks in downhill is to stop having downhills," said Hujara.


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