ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - Safety concerns forced Sochi Olympics organisers to halt the first training run for the women’s downhill on Thursday, with American Laurenne Ross describing her descent as “intimidating”.
Ross was the first woman down a piste bathed in dazzling sunshine and only two more runs took place before training was stopped to let workers shave snow off a hump near the finish.
Athlete safety has come sharply into focus in Sochi following snowboarding star Shaun White’s decision to pull out of the slopestyle event on Wednesday. The opening ceremony for Russia’s first winter Olympics is on Friday.
Action resumed after a delay of about an hour and while Austria’s Anna Fenninger set the fastest time many of the favourites for next Wednesday’s showpiece race were using it purely as a chance to familiarise themselves with racing lines.
“You just get really high off the ground, the slope just drops off and you’re still going straight and that’s the problem because you feel like you’re just not going to come down,” Ross told reporters.
“When you come down you come down pretty hard. If we get any more speed over the next few days I think it would be better to have that shaved off.
“I felt like, ‘You’re welcome, I’ll be your test dummy’”, the 25-year-old Ross said.
“I was definitely intimidated. But I’m happy that I was the first skier to go down in the Olympics.”
Ross’s team mate Julia Mancuso, a silver medallist in the downhill behind Lindsey Vonn four years ago, said the main problem had been the skiers sent down to check the course before the start of training, known as forerunners, were too slow.
“It’s unfortunate that in a way the racers are the testers,” Mancuso, who was third quickest behind Austria’s Fenninger and Swiss Fraenzi Aufdenblatten, said.
“It would be a lot better if we had decent forerunners but that’s always been an issue on our tour and it’s not much fun.”
Liechtenstien’s gold medal hope Tina Weirather agreed that slow forerunners had been a factor in the stoppage.
“They were going 20mph slower than World Cup skiers, who were then jumping 45 metres which is not good,” she said.
“Actually it’s not actually the jump, it’s the turn before which can cause the problem if you get that wrong.”
With Vonn recuperating from knee surgery, World Cup leader and double gold medallist from Vancouver Maria Hoefl-Riesch is now favourite for gold on the same course she won a World Cup race two years ago.
After setting the sixth fastest time she said the hardest thing was getting used to the light.
“It was okay, not all the turns were perfect,” Hoefl-Riesch told reporters. “We had been advised to slow before the jump but it was not necessary for me because I messed up the turn before and was slow anyway!
“The top section was challenging and the shadows made it tricky. But I’m not complaining, I’m happy to be here, the weather is perfect and I’ve already got two Olympic gold medals so perhaps this time it’s a little easier for me.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford