David Miller reports on protecting Freestylers from themselves.
The Norwegian organising committee of the next Youth Winter Olympic Games at Lillehammer is setting a premptive lead for the IOC and the FIS International Ski Federation – stricter, more safe design regulations for Slopestyle and Half-pipe disciplines to curb the high injury-risk factor witnessed at the Sochi Games.
The move is in line with alarm expressed at the World Conference on Illness and Injury in Sport at Monaco by Lars Engebretsen, senior medic of Norway’s NOC and head of scientific activities with the IOC’s medical and scientific department. He stated that the Slopestyle injury rate in Sochi “was too high for it to be an Olympic sport, to me it was unacceptably high, absolutely – very, very high”.
Inge Andersen, Secretary General of Norway’s NOC is equally emphatic, stressing that Lillehammer’s Youth event must be more secure, protecting competitors from their own enthusiasm. “Tracks must be regulated to reduce injury”, he said. “The Norwegian view is that while Slopestyle is a growing sport and increasingly popular we must all take responsibility to make tracks much safer. At Lillehammer we are aware of the need of security for competitors”.
The problem, of course, lies as much with competitors as with officialdom. Immature in experience of the world, as teenagers and even in their early twenties, athletes are intoxicated by thrills from the danger inherent in almost all freestyle winter disciplines. There is glamour in danger. Predictably, one of the first to reject Engebretsen’s proposals was Sage Kotsenberg, winner of men’s Snowboard Slopestyle, saying that its removal from the Olympics would be absurd. In his relative youth he may be unaware of the level of anxiety predominant among parents of almost every ambitious young Freestyler.
The world’s most famous, millionaire American Shaun White, withdrew from Snowboard Slopestyle because he did not fancy the injury risk which could jeopardise defence of his Half-pipe title – in which in the event he finished fourth.
Engebretsen revealed that extensive discussion was under way both within the IOC and the governing body of skiing, FIS. His concern is as much with recreational participants, as the popularity of the discipline expands, as with medal seekers. One of those injured at Sochi was Norwegian medal contender Torstein Horgmo, eliminated with a broken collar-bone. Other contenders injured were Canadians Kaya Turski and Yuki Tsubata, the entire Games in the shadow of Maria Komaissarova, the Russian Ski Cross competitor injured during training with a ruptured spine and confined to life with paralysis.
As in motor cycling and Formula 1, spectators subliminally have a vicarious fascination with danger, and there is an almost perverse admiration in winter sports by athletes for colleagues who are injured, endowing them with semi-heroic status. Talking of a tragically deceased young colleague, a competitor in Sochi suggested that his former companion “would be enjoying a few beers up there”. We can be sure that the colleague, not to say his parents, would rather he had been enjoying a few drinks “down here”. A Swiss coach, Ralph Phaeffli went so far as to say that a track “was not especially unsafe”. To what degree is an “unsafe” course acceptable? Engebretsen is concerned that winter sports cannot tolerate continuing controllable elements of uncertainty regarding safety.
This article has been republished with permission from Karl-Heinz Huba, the editor and publisher of The Sport Intern.