John F. Russell: Drones make impact on ski racing |

John F. Russell: Drones make impact on ski racing

John F. Russell
Courtesy Photo

— In the sport of ski racing, the difference between winning and losing is normally decided by a fraction of a second.

But earlier this week, a fraction of a second was the difference between viral video and disaster on a slalom course in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy. It was there, that Austrian ski racer Marcel Hirscher narrowly avoided a collision with an out-of-control drone used to record the ski race.

The incident was the highlight of the nightly newscast and is a perfect example of why so many people are concerned about the use of drones to cover things ranging from sporting events to major news stories. There is no question drones can deliver images that were impossible just a few years ago, but as this incident proves, there are also dangers involved with their use.

In this case, as Hirscher made his way down the slalom course, a drone crashed just a few feet behind him, smashing into hundreds of pieces as it impacted the ground. I can only image what would have happened if the craft had struck the skier, but my guess is it probably would have negatively impacted his performance,

As a photographer, my first thoughts were focused on the camera the drone was carrying. But then, I realized the ski racer and the drone had only missed one another by a fraction of a second. Normally, that’s the difference between winning and losing, but on this day, it was the difference between a must-see video on YouTube and a very real tragedy.

The incident prompted the FIS and Infront (the group broadcasting the race) to refrain from using drones for broadcast purposes until a fully secured operation can be ensured. That’s good news for the ski racer at the top of the hill running through the obstacles, but my guess is, it won’t be the last time a drone — or a photographer — pushes the limits to grab that one-of-a-kind image.

I must admit, making compelling images is the goal of just about every photographer who lines the side of a World Cup race course, and there are times photographers push the limits to bring the excitement of ski racing to those who would rather watch from a distance. The efforts of those who cover these events not only results in great images, but also helps promote the sport in places where ski racing is still more of a curiosity than a mainstream sport. The efforts to make compelling images and captivating video brings ski racing to people whose only exposure to the sport is sitting on the couch at home.

I’m happy to say that, as a photographer, I always make the safety of the athletes — and, as a result, my own safety — my first priority. The last thing I would ever want to do is interfere with the race or make a move that resulted in injury.

But let’s face it — the world is rapidly changing, and the opportunities to offer new ways of watching these sports is expanding at such a pace that safety isn’t always top priority. We were lucky the drone missed Hirscher last week and, instead of serving up a tragedy, offered a valuable lesson in how to cover a sports event.

Thankfully, the drone crashed behind Hirscher, providing a learning experience instead of a tragic occurrence that could have injured the ski racer and set the coverage of sports such as skiing back for years.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966

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