Officials and fans are mourning the death of the Canadian freestyle skier Nik Zoricic on the weekend in what they say was a freak accident at the end of a ski-cross race in Switzerland. But a video of the accident provides evidence that a few common-sense changes to the course would have easily prevented this tragedy.
In ski cross, as many as six competitors race down a narrow, hard-packed course that features high, banked turns and perilous jumps. The first one across the finish line is the winner. It is a tough, dangerous and sensational event that Alpine Canada, the country’s governing body for downhill ski racing, sells as “winter sport’s answer to a roller derby.”
In the video, which is available on the Internet, Mr. Zoricic is one of three skiers travelling at extreme speeds as they approach the final jump of their race. The jump is placed virtually on top of the narrow finish line, which is bounded on either side by large pillars and what appears to be little better than snow fencing, and some banks of snow.
Mr. Zoricic is offline by no more than one or two degrees when he hits the final jump, but there is no room for error. He comes down to the right of the right-hand finish-line pillar and crashes, airborne, into the fencing. Had there been a clear landing area there, Mr. Zoricic might have been disqualified for being offline, but he would have survived the race.
Nik Zoricic is the second Canadian freestyle skier to be killed in 2012. Sarah Burke died in January after a fall during a training run in a 6.6-metre-high “superpipe” in Utah. In both cases, the term “freak accident” was bandied about by officials at Alpine Canada and the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association. There was also justified admiration for the courage and determination of extreme athletes who push human physical boundaries. But what there hasn’t been in either case is a willingness to blame manageable conditions on the ski-cross course or in the superpipe, or to blame the sports themselves.
With this weekend’s tragedy, the term “freak accident” is an insensitive way to describe something that happens once a month. A better planned finish line would have saved Nik Zoricic’s life. As Sarah Burke said of extreme sports, “It’s not always going to go right.” If you provide an extreme athlete with no margin for error, you are sealing their fate.