By Philip O'Connor
ROSA KHUTOR, Russia (Reuters) - There were thrills, spills and plenty of nerves as slopestyle snowboarding opened competition at the Sochi Olympics on Thursday, and while much of the focus had been on athlete safety most came away unscathed at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park.
All eyes were on the course following Wednesday's withdrawal of American Shaun White, citing safety concerns, and the frightening crash that left Norway medal hope Torstein Horgmo with a broken collarbone.
But if any of the snowboarders were holding anything back on the sport's Olympic debut they did not show it, as they launched themselves spinning through the air to impress the judges.
Australian Scotty James was left clutching his ribs after a heavy fall, and Norway's Kjersti Buaas had to seek medical attention following a wipeout on her final run in the womens second heat.
But overall, competitors were pleased with the course.
"It's demanding, but it works. It's not a bad course," Norway's Torgeir Bergrem, who slipped in both runs, told Reuters in the finish zone
"They're not the most 'poppy' jumps - we're used to getting a little help with our tricks - but you have to do everything on your own here, so I guess that's the main difference that people are struggling with."
Bergrem said that doubts over course safety expressed earlier in the week had been dealt with after organizers trimmed the height of some of the jumps.
"It's not dangerous at all, it's a regular course," he said.
"The jumps are regular size, the rails are good, it's fine."
With slopestyle qualifying starting on Thursday, it was the first time in 30 years competition began ahead of a winter Games opening ceremony.
Games officials had been racing to complete preparations in time but as Britain's Billy Morgan took off to give slopestyle its official debut, volunteers were still hammering poles into the ground to secure crash barriers.
Morgan was so focused on his run that he was not even aware he was about to make snowboarding history.
"It was pretty cool, I didn't realize until one of the other athletes told me at the top," he told reporters.
"I didn't think about it until the last minute. I had fun and it was really good."
Cheered on by a vocal crowd just a little short of capacity, the riders grabbed the sport's Olympic opportunity with both hands, posing for photographs and signing autographs for fans.
Eight automatic spots in both the men's and women's final were up for grabs on Thursday, with the second heats delivering the day's most breathtaking action.
Austria's Anna Gasser showed no signs of nerves as she put in a sizzling run to score 95.50 to book her place in the final.
"I was so nervous, I've never been that nervous in my life before. I'm straight to the finals, that's the best thing I could wish for," she said with a beaming smile.
"It's the Olympics, and back home it's the first time it (slopestyle) is on TV back home, so I knew all my friends were watching."
In the second heat of the men's competition, Canada's Maxence Parrot came out on top after a frenzied second run which saw the lead change hands several times.
The men's final is on Saturday and the women's the following day.
(Editing by Ossian Shine) nL5N0LB0GN
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- Sochi Olympics