Nov 23 (Reuters) - The first World Cup men's downhill of the season will be run this weekend at Lake Louise under a dark cloud as the alpine ski fraternity continues to mourn the death of Frenchman David Poisson in a training crash.
Normally this is a giddy time for ski racing's speed demons but this year as they assemble at the posh resort tucked away in the Canadian Rockies the mood is subdued following the reminder that racing downhill is risky business.
"It is always going to be a dangerous sport but I would hope that safety improves, people just shouldn't be hitting trees," Brian Stemmle, a member of the Canadian ski team for more than a decade who suffered life-threatening injuries in a crash at a World Cup race in Kitzbuehel in 1989 and is now a safety advocate for the sport, told Reuters.
"I don't want to see anybody die and if somebody is dying they (the authorities) are not doing enough."
The death of Poisson, a hugely experienced 35-year-old downhiller and bronze medal winner at the 2013 world championships, sent a jolt through the sport on Nov. 13. According to reports, he crashed through safety netting and hit a tree during a training run at Nakiska.
The shockwaves continue to be felt in nearby Lake Louise with the season opening downhill scheduled for Saturday followed by a Super G on Sunday.
Lake Louise organisers plan several tributes to the fallen French skier during the weekend.
Racers will wear bibs featuring a black ribbon while the French and International Ski Federation (FIS) have requested there be recognition of Poisson in the finish area and on the leaderboard.
Poisson's death was the first of a World Cup alpine skier since 2001, when compatriot Regine Cavagnoud collided with a German ski coach during a training run at Pitztal, Austria.
A decade previously, Austrian Gernot Reinstadler was killed in a qualifying run for a World Cup race on Wengen's famed Lauberhorn while another Austrian, twice world champion Ulrike Maier, died in 1994 when she crashed within sight of the finish line of a World Cup downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
While Poisson will not be far from skiers' thoughts this weekend, competitors will switch into race mode on Saturday and focus on the challenge ahead -- a gruelling World Cup ski campaign which this year will include the added tension of securing spots on the start lists at the February's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The Lake Louise layout is considered unthreatening by downhill standards. allowing racers to ease into the season before tackling the more demanding classics like Kitzbuehel and Wengen.
But even at Lake Louise incredible danger lurks at every turn, the slightest miscalculation potentially resulting in a crash or severe injury.
The sight of skiers being airlifted from the Lake Louise track is not unfamiliar.
Italy's Peter Fill, the reigning World Cup downhill champion, will open his title defence on a layout where he has found success, finishing runnerup to Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal the last time the race was staged at Lake Louise in 2016.
Fill and team mate Dominik Paris, winner of two downhills last season including Kitzbuehel, can once again expect a strong Norwegian challenge from Svindal and Kjetil Jansrud, who captured the Super G title and finished runnerup to Austria's Marcel Hirscher in the chase for the overall World Cup crown.
Austria's Hannes Reichelt, who collected wins in both downhill and Super G last year, and Switzerland's downhill world champion Beat Feuz can also not be overlooked.
Canadians should also be a threat on home snow.
At last year's world championships they claimed three of the six medals on offer in the speed events, Erik Guay winning the Super G and taking silver in the downhill. Manny Osborne-Paradis took the Super G bronze. (Editing by Neil Robinson)