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Madcap ski cross makes Winter Olympic debut

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Anna Thompson | 22:25 UK time, Sunday, 21 February 2010

I've heard it described as a mixture of Nascar, motocross and bull riding. I've seen it compared to "a cabbie in New York trying to race through traffic and not crash". And I've heard it being likened to wacky races and the Grand National on skis all rolled into one.

Whatever similies and metaphors you choose to describe ski cross it arrived at the Winter Olympics with a big bang at a melting Cypress Mountain.

It was making its debut at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, four years after its snowboarding counterpart, and it certainly didn't disappoint.

For the record, Switzerland's Michael Schmid will go down in history as the first Olympic ski cross champion, Austria's Andreas Matt and Norway's Audun Groenvold the silver and bronze medallists respectively, but there were plenty of thrills and spills along the way.

Ski crossThe sport has been around since its infancy in the early 1990s and made its debut in the X Games in 1998 before being adopted onto the World Cup circuit in 2004.

The racers are a mixture of former alpine skiers and pure freestylers, but one thing is for sure - they have a fearless attitude to battle against each other at that speed.

After a timed qualification run ended with only one casualty, Czech Zdenek Safar, the 32 competitors were divided into eight heats of four racers. And that's when the madcap fun began as the crowd got pumped for the action with real rock tunes from Nirvana, Led Zeppelin and Metallica. There was no room for soft pop music here.

And the cheers and cow bells were ringing loud In the first heat as American alpine veteran Daron Rahlves, who switched to ski cross after the 2006 Winter Olympics, took on Schmid, the season's World Cup leader, France's Ted Piccard and Sweden's Eric Iljans down the 1,144m course in little over a minute.

Rahlves was on contention until he collided with Piccard on the penultimate jump, sending Schmid and Iljans through to the quarter-finals.

There was more carnage in the second heat - to gasps and whoops from the bloodthirsty crowd - as Anders Rekdal and Simon Stickl came to grief.

Rahlves, who was racing despite suffering a hip dislocation - the fourth of his career - at the recent X Games, continued to watch the racers fly down as he chatted to the media.

He was frustrated not to go through as he was desperate for an Olympic medal - the only thing missing from an illustrious alpine and now freestyle career.

"I was determined to race in the Olympics," Rahlves told me afterwards. "But I'm disappointed with the outcome."

It wasn't to be for his American team-mate Casey Puckett either. Puckett, in his fifth Olympics after also turning his back on alpine skiing, suffered the same fate.

Puckett bemoaned the soft spring-like snow that was slowing the racers down and making it virtually impossible to overtake. He had a point. Once a racer got out ahead they were never beaten. The only jockeying for position was usually between the second- and third-placed racers, both vying for that all-important second qualification spot.

"If you weren't out in front, you had to rely on a mistake from one of the others which was a shame," he said.

Hopes were high for a host nation medal as Chris Delbosco had won X Games gold earlier in the year. He used to be a member of the US alpine ski team but was dismissed for smoking marijuana. He turned to ski cross and used his dual-citizenship to represent Canada.

Delbosco sailed through to the final, winning all of his heats, but he came a cropper in the medal race, ironically after he had succeeded in a rare overtaking manoeuvre.

The 4,300-strong crowd had been cheering him on wildly as he looked nailed on for a bronze, only to fall on the penultimate jump, where most of the racers had found trouble. Cue a huge communal groan.

Bronze medallist Groenvold explained how difficult the course had been by saying the final obstacle "was like jumping out of a second-floor window".

And he summed up the unpredictably of the sport perfectly.

"I was thinking 'it isn't over until you cross the finish line,'" he said. "Unfortunately he (Delbosco) made a big mistake which gave me a good chance to pass. When you see someone crash like that, it's a mixed feeling. That's how the sport is."

Welcome to the madcap world that is ski cross.


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