To ski, or not to ski |

To ski, or not to ski

DEVON O'NEILsummit daily news

BEAVER CREEK – For many of the 56 racers in Thursday’s Birds of Prey super G field, it was almost hard to believe: A speed race? In conditions like these?For International Ski Federation referee Günter Hujara and the rest of the World Cup weekend’s organizing committee, the decision was easy. “There was never a doubt that we were going to race,” chief of press John Dakin said, noting the final call was made around 8 a.m.It didn’t take long for the swirling, 50 mph winds and blowing snow to take their toll. Five of the top 30 racers – including reigning super G world champion Bode Miller – failed to finish, most either missing a gate or falling prey to the soft snow that lay in wait if they skied off line. By the time all 56 skiers had gone, the DNF list included 17 names, or 30 percent of the field – an astonishing number for a speed event.Afterward, as the top finishers spoke of overcoming the daunting mental and physical challenges to lay down a good run, others wondered aloud if there ever should have been a race at all.”It was one of the hardest courses I ever (raced on),” said Sweden’s Hans Olsson, who took 38th. “I think they should’ve canceled it. But it’s up to them, you know? What can you do?”Great Britain’s Finlay Mickel, the last of five straight DNFs among starters 41-45, said the combination of bumpy snow and remarkably poor visibility made finishing in one piece an accomplishment in itself.”That was the windiest I’ve started a World Cup, in the start gate,” he said.Fritz Strobl and Benjamin Raich, both of Austria, were among those who finished respectably, albeit below their nation’s high standards. Strobl took 12th and Raich 18th. Yet after the race, neither was talking about the points he scored for his team.”I (couldn’t) believe when we raced today,” said Strobl, the defending Olympic gold medalist in downhill. He said he couldn’t see the slope below the start gate. Others said they couldn’t see the bibs in the on-course gates until they were almost upon them.Raich, who finished fourth in the World Cup super G standings last year, said he was disenchanted that the race took place in the first place, but his mood changed to happy relief once he reached the bottom without incident.Dangerous, or not?To be sure, a racer’s take on the conditions depended on when he started. Canadian Erik Guay, Thursday’s runner-up, completed his run during a lull in the howling winds and relentless snow. Afterward, he said, “It’s not dangerous. It’s not at all dangerous. If you ski solid and strong, it’s really no problem. The snow underneath is nice and smooth.”In contrast, American JJ Johnson blew out of the course and had to settle for the disappointment that went with it. Asked later if he thought the conditions were unsafe, he said, “A little bit. A little bit, for sure. I can’t lie to you.”With the big money that comes from sponsorships and TV exposure (NBC and the Outdoor Life Network are broadcasting the Birds of Prey races) – and considering this is the only U.S. stop for the men’s World Cup – many racers and coaches understood the decision to race, even if they didn’t agree with it.”That’s about as close to the limit – if not over the limit – to being able to run a ski event as you can get,” U.S. head coach Phil McNichol said. “We’ve seen races before that weren’t optimal … but if you can get everyone down the hill safely, that is the No. 1 priority. The second should be fairness of competition, but it’s not. They’ve already said in the past, ‘We will run a race, to get a race off, on television, and we will not cancel just for fairness.’ And that’s reality.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13630, or at