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Skiers wonder loudly about injected courses

| Friday, Jan. 8, 2010, 12:00 p.m.

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.

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, 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."

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.

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."

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