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King of the Hill: Speed collides with danger WINTER OLYMPICS


KVITFJELL, Norway -- The valley floor lies below like a frozen black-and-white photograph of pine trees and snow drifts.

The lead-gray sky is above.

And on the course are the Winter Olympic daredevils, the downhillers crouched in aerodynamic tucks, coming by one after another like airliners on a runway, flashes of fury and sound catapulting off a jump and soaring through the air at 80 miles an hour.

"It's like jumping off an eight-story building," said American racer Kyle Ferguson. "And landing."

This is the Olympic downhill at Kvitfjell.

It took five years to build and extracts one-minute, forty-five seconds of skiing perfection from the world's best racers.

It snakes two miles through a forest and drops a half-mile into the valley.

The winner will be crowned king of the hill in ski racing.

But these are uncommon times on the international skiing circuit, a period when a sport has collided with issues of life and death.

The racers are still mourning the death of Austrian champion Ulrike Maier, who was killed during a race two weekends ago when she slammed into a timing device on a course in Garmisch, Germany.

The accident has been so traumatic to the women's tour that many of the top racers have expressed second thoughts about racing in the Olympics. Even 1992 Olympic women's downhill gold medalist Kerrin Lee-Gartner of Canada says she does not yet know if she wants to defend her championship in Norway. And it was Gartner who led the lobbying to have the women's race placed on the same mountain as the men's, an Olympic first.

The downhill always has been about speed. But it also has been about danger. Two years ago in Wengen, Switzerland, an Austrian skier, Gernot Reinstadler, caught the tip of his ski in the webbing of a snow fence and was killed.

"Downhillers live with a certain fatalism," said Bernhard Russi, the designer of the past three Olympic downhill courses.

"We should never forget that we are in a sport using a helmet," said Russi, who won the 1972 Olympic downhill gold. "When you use a helmet, it is in some ways special."

For the past few weeks, racing officials have defended the safety of their courses. Russi says that Kvitfjell, like virtually every modern course, is safe for the men and the women.

"The racers should always have fear," he said. "If the fear is not there, then the respect for the downhill is not there."

To an outsider, the downhill is the most preposterous of events. It is racer against mountain, first competitor to the bottom wins at speeds that would make a motorcyclist pause.

Racers like Tommy Moe, the rising young American star, are accustomed to being asked, "So, are you guys crazy or what?"

"Yeah," he said. "I think so. We're kind of crazy. I like the adrenalin rush. I'm an adrenalin junkie."

Even Ferguson, a father of two, pushes the edge. Anything less, he said, could be dangerous.

"If you get tentative, you're not thinking right," he said. "You have to get in there and go. You go that fast, you don't want to pull up and do a back flip. You would break your back. You have to go for it."

Kvitfjell presents challenges over an ever-changing terrain. The start is above the tree line and, after a series of fall-away turns, the racers are faced with the most spectacular jump on the course, the Russi Jump.

They fly through the air the length of a football field, landing softly before they make a sharp left turn onto the steep descent to the bottom.

"It's a short course," said AJ Kitt, the last American to win a World Cup title. "It's one of the best courses that Russi has ever designed."

Now, the only question before Sunday's race is this: what will the weather be like?

Norway in winter is an especially gray and forbidding place. Light conditions can best be described with one word: white.

"You pray for sun," Moe said.

Instead, the racers are likely to roar down the mountain through overcast skies that nearly match the color of the snow.

"When you drive in a blizzard you can't see in front of you," Kitt said. "It's the same on the course. But we can't slow down."

The downhillers race at only one speed: full throttle.

"Now, you can't worry about breaking an arm or a leg," Kitt said. "You don't slow down. Ever."

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