ALBERTVILLE, France -- Tragedy struck the Winter Olympics yesterday when a Swiss speed skier slammed into a snow-grooming vehicle and died instantly only hours before he was scheduled to compete in a final.
Nicolas Bochatay, 27, the 1991 Swiss speed skiing champion, was killed on a slope in Les Arcs, site of the race, according to local organizers.
The Swiss Olympic team reported that Bochatay died on the spot "because of numerous internal injuries" suffered when he hit the huge tractor-like machine.
Despite the death, the race went on as scheduled, and Michael Prufer of France won the non-medal event.
Bochatay, a carpenter who was married and had two children, was the nephew of Fernande Bochatay, winner of the bronze medal in the women's giant slalom at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble.
He was killed while limbering up for the race, skiing with a teammate and other competitors on a recreational ski slope.
Organizers said an investigation will take place to determine the cause. But already, there is a controversy.
The Swiss statement said that the vehicle was hidden and not moving at the time of the accident.
Teammate Pierre-Yves Jorand, who was skiing with Bochatay, "was able to avoid it at the very last moment," the statement added.
But the local organizing committee released a statement that the vehicle was moving and was "using its flashing light and its siren."
Organizing committee official Hugo Steinegger said Bochatay and Jorand had crested a small hill and sailed into the air, with Bochatay crashing into a vehicle they never saw. Steinegger added in a statement that Bochatay was "using slalom skis and not speed skis," and he was "skiing fast."
Jeffrey Hamilton of Truckee, Calif., who finished third in the speed skiing event, said he and another American, James Morgan of Olympic Valley, Calif., who was seventh, were in the group skiing with Bochatay.
"Jim and I were watching and his [Bochatay's] timing was all off as he took the jump. Then people started waving at us from down the hill to tell us to stop," Hamilton told the Associated Press.
Ronald Grossman, a U.S. team doctor from Hopewell, N.J., also witnessed the accident.
"They went over a little knoll, he [Bochatay] was up in the air, and on the other side of the hill was the Sno-Cat," Grossman said. "He was buried underneath. Somebody tried some CPR, without success."
Grossman added, "It's very sad, and it wasn't related to the [speed] skiing, which is what everybody was frightened about. We were saying this morning [yesterday] we hope just to get through this competition."
Hamilton, describing the accident as a "mental nightmare," said he could not put it out of his mind when his turn came on the slope. The American team met before the competition to discuss the accident.
"It's a tremendous loss, to lose a competitor like that in a freak accident," U.S. coach Jack Nance said in a news conference. "It's hard on everybody. It's part of skiing. Things like that are going to happen."
Harvey Schiller, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee expressed "shock" when he learned about the accident.
"To happen in this environment, is a real tragedy," he said. "Our thoughts are with the family."
IOC president Juan Antonio Samarach, Albertville organizing committee co-president Jean-Claude Killy and committee official Jean-Albert Corrand went to Les Arcs after the death was announced.