Vonn glory stands out but risks are increasing
There is no argument about the biggest question of these 21st Winter Olympics. It was asked on the morning of a grandiose opening ceremony and it is not likely to go away.
When does sport become unacceptably dangerous? Here rulers of the Games, which have been forced to operate under the immovable pall of the death through negligence of luger Nodar Kumaratashivili have drawn a somewhat squiggly line.
While the half-pipe snowboarding sensation Shaun White was allowed to create his own confected hazards on his way to gold, one of the most naturally gifted skiers in the history of alpine sport was yesterday provided with a modified course when she sought to win another visit to the top of the podium.
Not that the American superwoman Lindsey Vonn was complaining.
She could hardly do that after admitting her sensational swoop for downhill gold on Wednesday involved “fighting all the way” a near three-kilometre course which “was probably the bumpiest course I have ever run. Yes, I was definitely fighting it all the way.”
To the naked eye, Vonn looked as though she had laid down her own heavenly tram-lines as she touched speeds of around 65mph without a perceptible error.
However when so many of her key rivals crashed out — most spectacularly the accomplished, five-time Olympic medallist Anja Paerson of Sweden — and the Romanian Edith Miklos had to be put on a stretcher and airlifted from the course it was inevitable that in the shadow of the luge tragedy curative action would be taken.
Race director Atle Skaardal was obviously not quite certain of what to say when announcing a comprise for yesterday's running of the women's super combined downhill but it would have been stunning if there had not been a breath of compromise in the air. There wasn't.
“We will try to ease things down a bit,” announced Skaardal.
“I thought the course was acceptable for sure. But it was very difficult, no question about that.”
Difficult? Even the winner Vonn suggested it was more than that and when Paerson, pushing harder than anyone to match the sublime American, flew 90 metres off the last jump before the finish the degree of danger could not be in doubt.
The changes to yesterday's run were more or less impossible to put off. What might have been avoided — if a little more honesty was applied to the important question of life or death or serious injury — was the official implication which came when the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre was so dramatically changed after Kumaratashvili's death.
Then the verdict was that death had come through driver error. With that, then, could we presume that the course was guiltless? Hardly, not when, much to the rage of the Canadian team who had had become so familiar with its challenges the start was moved nearly 200 yards down the track and work was doing on the fatal 16th curve and the protective wall.
The dangers of sports requiring downhill descent are a huge element in their appeal. But you cannot make compromises at the heart of that appeal.
Most vitally, you cannot force the greatest skiers and lugers to distrust their ability to set their own limits.