Alpine skiing: Downhill and danger go hand-in-hand

Dressed only in figure-hugging catsuits and helmets, the skiing speed kings and queens hurtle down long, steep and icy slopes at motorway-coasting speeds.

US star Lindsey Vonn's horror crash in the opening women's super-G at the World Ski Championships was but an unfortunate part of the heady mix that makes the sport one of the most dangerous in which to participate.

Swedish racer Hans Olsson, twice a medallist in the team events at the 2007 and 2011 worlds, insisted Friday that ski racers were not "lunatics", and while crashes were unavoidable, more attention should be given to "performance and achievement".

While not on the same level as Kitzbuehel, Wengen, Val d'Isere and Bormio, the slopes being used in Schladming have nevertheless proved to be testing.

Gradients touch 72 percent in places and skiers have been hitting 110kph on "terrain-heavy" pistes, with numerous rolls and bumps along the energy-draining 3km-long courses capable of propelling them 60 metres in the air.

Teams acknowledge that ski racing has become much safer over the years, with the introduction of marked courses, and better safety nets and crash pads along the piste.

But that goes in tandem with the increased professionalism among ski racing's upper echelons and the vast improvement in equipment.

And then there is the excitement generated by a "real" downhill, the anticipation that drives 35,000 spectators to cram into the finish area here wanting to see a man, or woman, conquer the mountain in the fastest possible way, or share in the groans at a spectacular fall.

Swedish racer Olsson argued that injuries to Vonn and Norwegian medal hopeful Kjetil Jansrud should not take centre stage.

"What I find a bit disappointing is that the amazing achievements of so many athletes are being overshadowed by those injuries," Olsson said in a blog for the sport's governing body, the FIS.

"I know there are a lot of ski fans out there who are really fascinated with the amazing achievements of the racers in the world champs.

"What I also know is that the risk of accidents brings a certain excitement to the sport and risk is really necessary to make it popular."

Olsson added: "What would skiing be without the crashes, without the injuries, without the pain that you sometimes get to experience through the TV screens?

"It would definitely be a good sport with some interesting tight racing, but (I hate to say "but" at this point) it would not be as popular and intense as it is now, when you know that things could suddenly go very wrong.

"Unfortunately, we need the action and the crashes to make this cool sport what it is, but what I really don't want is for the accidents to take over and become a bigger part of the race than the achievements of the racers."

The margin of error is tiny for skiers who put their trust in physical form and technical proficiency on the two skis strapped to their boot-clad feet.

And Olsson said it was those skills that should be highlighted above the crashes.

"Let's say I didn't know much about ski racing but I read the newspaper after this weekend," he mused.

"After seeing the pictures of the crashes I would most likely think that this is the world championships of lunatics and I would also most likely never put my kids in a ski school to grow up and become World Cup downhillers!

"Just as skydiving and base-jumping are all about intense feelings and thrill but not about avoiding death, so ski racing is about the performance and achievement and not about the accidents."