At Sochi Olympics, finding risk is snow problem

COLUMN | The snow around here looks like soup, a creamy bisque that seems harmless enough until the athletes plunge into it and find the hard crags of the Caucasus beneath, which is when the medics race out. The sounds of the Sochi Games are a whack and the clatter of boards and skis, followed by wails — or worse, a terrible stillness. The mounting crash toll includes a broken back, a broken jaw and an assortment of head injuries. The logo for this Olympics ought to be a stretcher.

After Russian skicross racer Maria Komissarova underwent six hours of surgery to repair the broken spine she suffered tumbling in the slosh of Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, President Vladimir Putin was kind enough to visit her. She should have told him, “Talk to my personal-injury lawyer.” This was the wrong place for a Winter Olympics for all kinds of human rights reasons. It may also have been a dangerously idiotic one for the competitors based on the quality of snow.

Sochi’s warm Black Sea air makes this an undeniably scenic and unusual venue, but it has added a slippery caprice to events that are already plenty hazardous, such as skicross racing. Or snowboard cross, in which American Jackie Hernandez was knocked unconscious Sunday morning after an unnervingly nasty wipeout during a seeding run and was taken away in a sled with a hand over her eyes.

Then pre-race favorite Lindsey Jacobellis wiped out in the semifinals despite a lead when she lost her balance off a jump into the muck. “It was kind of like landing in mashed potatoes,” she said.

The combination of monstrously large jumps and bad snow put fear in the heart of the competitors. American Faye Gulini, who finished in fourth place, said, “On this course, it kind of seemed like just staying on your feet was important.”

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Mountains of the Olympics

Sunday’s carnage just added to the litany of injuries throughout the Games. Russian ski jumper Mikhail Maksimochkin was taken away on a stretcher with two broken ribs after crashing during practice on the large hill. Race official Walter Hofer denied the crash was related to the conditions — sort of.

“This can happen any time,” he said. “Of course the temperature is a challenge for us.”

Slovenia’s Rok Perko broke his nose in men’s downhill training. Norwegian medal favorite Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone training for the men’s slopestyle. In the women’s slopestyle, Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic crashed so hard she broke her helmet, and Canada’s Yuki Tsubota lay frighteningly still at the finish line after she wiped out and was carried off the course with a busted jaw.

The Sochi slush is throwing people up or down and turning things fluky, which has not just ruined medal prospects for some of the best athletes here but knocked some out. When 18 out of 48 skiers couldn’t even finish the course in the women’s super-G, the most in the event’s history, something is off. Jean-Philippe le Guellec of Canada was leading the men’s 12.5-kilometer biathlon when the soft snow caused him to break a ski.

“Honestly, I want to punch a wall and hopefully break through it,” he told the Associated Press.

The winter board sports are counterintuitive: Hard consistent snow is actually preferable, so you can set the edges that give you control and allow you to make speed judgments. The last thing you want is an abrupt halt into slush, which is what sends you in the air over your equipment. But the “junkshow” conditions here varied dramatically from the top of a run to the bottom.

“Everything seems to slow down near the end,” Andrew Weibrecht said after winning silver in the men’s super-G.

With more freestyle events, the Sochi Olympics will look more like the Winter X Games than ever before. (Associated Press)

Jacobellis had the second-fastest time in the snowboard cross seeding runs on firmer snow Sunday morning. But the sun worked on the course until it was a side dish at a holiday dinner.

“It’s not often you get to ride with just a tank top at the Winter Games,” she said.

The fact is, this isn’t really a Winter Olympics. It’s a spring Olympics, with temperatures ranging from 50 to 65 degrees, which create conditions many of the athletes don’t normally compete on. Canadian halfpiper Crispin Lipscomb observed, “This snow is unique. . . . I think it has something to do with the salt in the air. This pipe is just like a summer training pipe.”

Weather problems and crashes aren’t unique to Sochi; Four years ago in Vancouver, snow needed to be trucked in to some venues, and Republic of Georgia luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died during a training run on the day of the Opening Ceremonies. American downhiller Stacey Cook had to be airlifted from Whistler after a wipeout, and there were plenty of delayed events because of poor conditions. A British Journal of Sports Medicine survey of doctors who worked in Vancouver showed that at least one in 10 athletes suffered an injury of some kind there.

There may not necessarily be more injuries here; we won’t know that until we count up the medical charts in a week. Ask the International Olympic Committee whether the conditions are causing more harm than usual, and you get an exercise in hedging, backing and filling. IOC spokesman Mark Adams said of Komissarova’s broken back, “I’m not sure that it is actually the format or the course that’s necessarily the problem.” Asked whether there was evidence of any statistical spike, he rambled, “The medical commission of the IOC collects and monitors data on illness and injuries, and what I can tell you — I mean once you look at prevention strategies and so on — is at this stage we don’t see anything.”

If there isn’t a rise in the actual number of injuries, there do seem to be a higher number of traumatic ones, requiring stretchers and ambulances. Since 1998, the IOC has added 26 new medal pursuits — including 10 in snowboarding — to put more eyes on the screen and money in its pocket. That means more kids jacked up in the air and more chances to get hurt. Giving an Olympic platform to such audacious athleticism is great in principle, but as long as the IOC is going in that direction, it has an obligation to put the Winter Games in places where the conditions are optimal. Not in a soup bowl.

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Mountains of the Olympics

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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