Debate stirs over injecting courses

U.S. star Lindsey Vonn is a central figure in a debate consuming the Alpine skiing circuit with the Vancouver Games a little more than a month away: Is it a mistake to inject slopes with water in a bid to make courses more consistent and weather-resistant?

The practice can result in conditions Vonn -- a two-time overall World Cup champion and Olympic medal favorite -- likened to "pond ice" after she skied off-course during a slalom at Aspen, Colo., this season.

"It's not ski racing anymore," she said that day. "I don't think it does anyone a service to have it this difficult. It doesn't look good on TV."

And that was before Vonn fell during a giant slalom on another injected course, at Lienz, Austria, last month, leaving her injured arm in a sling. The tumble prompted her husband, former U.S. Ski Team member Thomas Vonn, to say skiing officials' use of water injection would be the equivalent of car-racing officials deciding to "spray oil randomly every couple hundred yards" on a track.

"They made the conditions pure ice directly at the gate and then grippy everywhere else, which, in my opinion, is the most dangerous condition a racer can encounter," Thomas Vonn wrote then in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

When a course is injected, water is forced 1 or 2 feet deep into the snow through tiny nozzles on a high-pressure hose. As cold air seeps in, a layer of hard snow and ice is created, so the slope will not deteriorate as dozens of racers ski over it or be rendered useless if the temperature gets too warm or too much rain or fresh, soft snow falls -- vagaries of weather than can otherwise lead to postponement of races.

In two-run races -- slaloms and giant slaloms -- the top skiers from the first run go in reverse order in the second, so if the course doesn't hold up well, the lower-ranked skiers could have an advantage.

Sometimes injection is used on only portions of a race course; sometimes on the whole thing.

"Once you have an injected surface, it's very unlikely you're going to lose an event, an important thing from the standpoint of TV contracts and prize money and World Cup standings," said Jim Hancock, the race chief at Aspen for more than a decade. "The downside is, it does make it really, really hard and icy and, in some cases, real slick."

According to an official from the International Ski Federation (known as FIS), it's likely that injection will be used at Whistler, British Columbia, where Alpine events will be held during the Feb. 12-28 Olympics.

"It lets us hold a lot of the races, even with changing weather conditions -- warm temperatures, rain, snowfall," said women's World Cup race director Atle Skaardal, a former racer and coach for Norway. "Basically, injection is insurance."

Skaardal, who will help oversee women's Alpine racing at Whistler, expects injection to be used there throughout a course for technical races (slalom, giant slalom) and possibly for parts of the speed events (downhill, super-G). He thinks it's more likely that injection will be used for men's races than women's.

"The experience we've had is that for ladies, it's not working out that well for speed courses," Skaardal acknowledged in a telephone interview Thursday. "It makes it quite brutal in downhill and super-G."

Injected courses also tend to be harder, which translates to more pounding when racers fall.

So it also is part of the larger conversation about a recent rash of injuries to prominent skiers -- one of the factors cited as a possible explanation, along with questions about equipment, gates that don't break apart and whether speeds have simply grown too fast.

Downhill world champion John Kucera, World Cup slalom champion Jean-Baptiste Grange and former women's overall World Cup winner Nicole Hosp are among the racers already ruled out for Vancouver. Peter Fill, Pierre-Emmanuel Dalcin, TJ Lanning, Lara Gut and Resi Stiegler also have been sidelined long-term.

"We now have discussions going on: 'What is the reason behind [all the injuries]?' If we would know it, we would change the rules immediately, of course," FIS president Gian-Franco Kasper said. "One thing we have also to say is we are in an Olympic season, and many athletes have to qualify. They take absolute full risk because they see the Olympic Games coming up."

After her fall in Austria, Vonn said: "Since the injections, the women have had a lot more injuries. You know, it's not appropriate for women's racing. ... I personally do not think that they need to be injecting the course. But if they inject, they just need to do it right. It needs less water in the snow. They need to find a system that works, because this system is definitely not working."

As Herbert Mandl, the coach of the Austrian women's team, put it: "A slightly wrong judgment can ... completely destroy a course."

Racers have complained about how slippery slopes become when injected. They also note that, safety issues aside, the results of a race can be affected.

"It's so hard to know how much attacking you can do," said Sweden's Anja Paerson, another two-time overall World Cup champion and owner of five Olympic medals. "Some turns are just slick, and some are really grippy."

Said Germany's Kathrin Hoelzl, the reigning world champion in giant slalom who won at Aspen: "Ice is OK. Too icy is not good."

Hoelzl said it's easier for men to deal with icy, injected courses. Indeed, men's World Cup races have been using this method for more years than women's events, which only have made it a regular practice the past two seasons.