Aussie's 1964 Olympic ski death still raw

Jan 20, 2014 - 11:47 PM In 1964 skier Ross Milne became the only Australian athlete to die during an Olympics when he crashed into a tree at the Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. On the 50th anniversary of his death, controversy still rages about how it happened.

By Glenn Cullen

SYDNEY, AAP - Fifteen-year-old Malcolm Milne was sitting in a room of Melbourne's Southern Cross Hotel when he heard the news of his brother's death.

He'd been in a buoyant mood. He and his parents were leaving the next day on a journey to watch Ross Milne compete in the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

The trip never happened.

"At about seven o'clock at night there was a knock on the door. Someone came and said there was a tragic accident and Ross had died," Milne recalled.

"We had dinner in our room and drove home the next day in stunned silence."

Ross, 19, had crashed into a tree at an estimated 80km/hr while training for the downhill event on the notorious Patscherkofel course.

Reports suggested that the young Australian had made a technical error as he came over a rise, catching an edge and crashing off-piste.

Austrian officials and IOC members suggested that the Australian's "inexperience" had caused the tragedy, some going so far as to suggest that southern hemisphere competitors should not be at the Games.

According to Malcolm Milne, others who were in Innsbruck on January 25, 1964 tell a different story.

"There were actually ski racers on that course who had stopped to inspect a difficult passage," he told AAP.

"My brother came right around the corner. They were right there. He swerved to miss them and flew into the trees.

"That's how the accident happened."

In 2005 at a function in Val d'Isere, France, Milne was approached by German skier Wolfgang Bartels, who won the bronze medal in the downhill at the 1964 Games.

"He pulled me over and said: `I need to talk about your brother. I want to talk to you about what happened,'" Milne recounted.

Bartels, who died two years later, confirmed what Malcolm Milne had been told by others - that there were other skiers standing on the course.

None of the other three Australian alpine skiers at the Games witnessed the accident, but downhill racer Simon Brown was next on course after Milne and skied past the scene shortly after the tragedy.

Brown conceded he could never be 100 per cent sure but said: "I'm of the opinion ... there was someone in his way and he weaved to miss them and hit some trees".

"I came over that crest of the hill going flat out and I saw a large group of people at a set of trees. I went on another 15 yards to where our trainer was and he told me that Ross had had an accident."

Teammate Peter Brockhoff, uncle of 2014 Winter Olympian Belle Brockhoff, was too distraught to compete in the downhill and was replaced by reserve Peter Wenzel.

Wenzel, who wasn't on the piste when the accident occurred, said Austrian authorities simply couldn't admit that they had failed to provide adequate safety and security for skiers, an embarrassment for a country steeped in alpine tradition.

"A cover up? I would say they did their best to brush over the situation and lay blame on the skier rather than the organisation. That's the way I see it anyway. But it was 50 years ago so who the hell is going to know?" Wenzel said.

"In my view it was a tragic accident that shouldn't have happened with better organisation."

Despite the uncertainties, there was no official inquiry.

Brown believes Australian Olympic officials did not want to pursue the matter because they risked sharing the blame should the race officials' view be upheld.

"It was certain Australian Olympic officials wanted to quieten it up," Brown said.

"I think it was just in case if somebody proved that we weren't good enough to compete that they would have been liable for sending us down this downhill."

Wenzel offered: "I was only 20 at the time and didn't think through the issues. I suspect Ross and Malcolm's parents, who were wonderful people, probably didn't want to have a big inquiry. The tragedy around the whole thing would've been quite devastating."

Malcolm Milne confirmed his family's belief that there would be no value in an inquiry as it would not bring Ross back.

While the matter may be officially closed, the suggestion that his brother and fellow Australian skiers weren't up to it remains seared into Milne's mind.

Indeed, he used it to inspire his own career.

In 1969 Milne became the first non-European to win a World Cup event when he took out the downhill in Val-d'Isere.

He competed in two Olympics and finished third in a world championship downhill race in Grenoble, France.

Milne was Australia's first true skiing star, before Steve Lee, Zali Steggall and the modern-day freestyle greats.

Now 65 and running a cattle farm near where he and his brother grew up in Myrtleford, Victoria, Milne has no interest in finding out who the skiers were blocking the steep section of the course that day.

He simply wants to honour the memory of his brother, and prove that Australian skiers could mix it with anyone in the world.

Source: AAP

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