Alpine skiing: Crashes highlight dangers of downhill

Four spectacular crashes punctuated the women's world downhill on Sunday, sliding bodies, flying skis and high-impact landings highlighting the dangers of top-level ski racing.

The pistes used for the worlds have come under scrutiny for not being in the same class as those offered up at Bormio, Kitzbuehel, Val d'Isere and Wengen, which are steeper, faster and widely considered the most testing on the circuit.

But while racers reach top speeds of "only" 110kph, the 3km-long Streicher course used by the women has thrown up a host of curveballs, from variable light in parts to snaking, icy traverses and rolls capable of propelling racers 60 metres in the air.

The field for the downhill was blown wide open when Olympic champion Lindsey Vonn sustained season-ending knee injuries in a horror crash on the course in the opening super-G event on Tuesday.

Austrian hope Stephanie Moser was the first casualty on Sunday, one of her skis popping off and sending her crashing into the side netting, to groans from the 20,000 fans watching on big screens at the finish area.

German Veronique Hronek, Switzerland's Dominique Gisin and Italian Daniela Meringhetti soon after joined her in the nets. All four appeared to escape serious injury.

Hronek's experienced teammate Maria Hoefl-Riesch, who took bronze behind Italian Nadia Fanchini and unlikely winner Marion Rolland of France, said the thrills and spills were essential to the make-up of downhill racing.

"It was not easy. The slope was really challenging," acknowledged Hoefl-Riesch, who has also won the super-combined gold medal here.

But like all other racers, Hoefl-Riesch admitted that the attraction of the ultimate alpine skiing speed event was in the inherent danger.

"Downhill is dangerous, maybe even more on a slope like this. I like it when it's icy, tough and challenging," she said.

"It was fun. As Lindsey said in St Anton, 'you have to have big balls'.

"Downhill racing is spectacular and dangerous, this (slope) was really special and worthy of a world championships."

Rolland, a shock winner having only reached the World Cup podium twice before -- in Schladming last year, said self-belief was key.

"I'm really proud of myself. I said to myself after training that it wouldn't be easy on this slope," the 30-year-old said.

Tina Maze, Slovenia's runaway leader in the overall World Cup standings and super-G gold medallist after Vonn's tumble, could only finish seventh in the downhill.

"I totally missed the race. It was tough to come down today," she said, later tweeting: "I'm happy I'm OK!"

The US team failed to fill the sizeable void left by Vonn's absence, but both Stacey Cook and Leanne Smith (sixth and 12th respectively) heaped praise on a course described as having "lots of terrain".

"I knew what I was getting into," said Cook. "It was a really great course. That's what a world championship course should be, it should be the best skier winning at the end."

Smith added: "It was bumpy, a good ride, and you had to stay ahead of it and really be moving forward or else it's going to rattle you.

"It takes a lot of power and a lot of commitment from you to really drive through the boot and stay solid on your outside ski.

"It's definitely a challenge but a really fun and good course."

Smith said that crashes were part and parcel of the event.

"It's hard when you're carrying as much speed as we are, with our fast skis on, and really trying to go for it," she said.

"It's the world championships so you can't have any regrets. It's definitely difficult to stay ahead and stay on your feet..."