Cold, hard, and fast: The danger of Winter Olympics sports

Switzerland's Evelyne Leu, top, crashes during the Salt Lake City Olympics. French skier Carole Montillet-Carles was taken away by stretcher after a practice spill in Turin.
Switzerland's Evelyne Leu, top, crashes during the Salt Lake City Olympics. French skier Carole Montillet-Carles was taken away by stretcher after a practice spill in Turin. (Leu Photo By Laura Rauch/associated Press; Montillet-carles Photo Bystefano Rellandini/reuters)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

This week, as airborne snowboarders try to complete two flips and three spins before landing on a halfpipe, or skeleton athletes hurtle headfirst at 90 mph just two inches above the icy track, we hold our breath wondering whether they'll make it. From the comfort of our living rooms, they seem just a quarter of an inch away from catastrophe, especially now that the Games have claimed their first victim, a luger from the Republic of Georgia, who died after being thrown from his speeding sled on a practice run.

The athletes who have descended on Vancouver, B.C., for the Winter Games are the best in their sports, well trained, in top condition and prepared for the unexpected. But they are also pushing the limits of speed, height and complexity, above an unforgiving surface of ice or snow. Whether it is luge, skeleton, aerial skiing or snowboarding, the race for faster, higher, more air, means big risks for the athletes.

"Each sport has its own inherent risk," says James Moeller, chief doctor for the U.S. Olympic team, adding that it's impossible to point to one as the riskiest.

Says Olympics historian David Wallechinsky: "The Winter Olympics has always had dangerous sports, but it's getting worse. A lot of it has to do with maybe you want the ratings and danger is good for ratings. Perhaps not so good for the athletes. You do have to ask yourself what's going on."

Statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission make clear just how dangerous winter sports can be and not just for Olympians: 139,332 Americans were injured while skiing in 2007 and even more, 164,002, got hurt while snowboarding that year. And when looking at all winter-sport injuries, including sledding, snowmobiling and ice skating, 10 percent involved a head injury.

Snowboarding is a comparatively young sport, debuting at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, that has some of the most daring stunts, among them the Crippler 540 and double cork. "They're pushing the edge of what they can do," Moeller says. "The bigger the trick, the bigger the air, the more risky it appears, the more points they'll score."

It also is less regulated than its forward-facing cousin, the aerials event in freestyle skiing, which also involves acrobatic flips and other tricks. Although snowboarders practice on trampolines and foam pits before taking their moves to the icy, unforgiving halfpipe, the riders themselves are the ultimate judges of what is "safe." The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) publishes a competition guide every year -- 2010's is 100 pages of rules, course specifications, a point system for the various maneuvers and a code of conduct -- but the organization does not dictate when a rider can proceed with a new skill. As a result, one athlete will come up with a new, ever more challenging trick and then others will scramble to learn it, too.

Compare that with aerials, for which officials from the USSA dictate that the athletes must successfully pull off 100 back flips on water before they are allowed to try one on snow, according to U.S. freestyle coach Jeff Wintersteen. Raising the stakes for snowboarders this Olympics is the larger size of the halfpipe, which has shot up to 22 feet from 18 feet in the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. A bigger pipe means bigger air.

"Normally, skiers and snowboarders have the same injury rate, but some of these [snowboarders] are going so big on air and tricks right now that they're getting hurt," says orthopedic surgeon William Sterett, who is the lead doctor for the U.S. women's Alpine ski team.

A case in point was the Dec. 31 training crash of Olympic hopeful Kevin Pearce, 22, who, while attempting the must-have stunt of this year's Games, the twisting double back flip called the double cork, slammed his head into the side of the halfpipe. Pearce was wearing a helmet, but it was little protection when the maneuver went bad. He was knocked unconscious and was taken to a Salt Lake City hospital with a head injury; on Feb. 4, he was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital specializing in traumatic brain injuries.

'I've been seeing stars'

Meanwhile, the Crippler 540 trick, which involves the rider spinning around 1 1/2 times while inverted, downed Australian medalist hopeful Torah Bright at the X Games on Jan. 28. The fall caused her second concussion in three days, and she had to pull out of the competition; Bright is in the lineup for the Olympics.

The best-known American snowboarder, 23-year-old superstar Shaun White, ran into trouble at the X Games, when he landed wrong at the end of Double McTwist 1260 (1260 degrees of horizontal rotation packed inside two vertical flips) during a practice. White's head crashed into the lip of the halfpipe, which jerked his neck backward, sent his helmet flying and bloodied the left side of his face. White, who remained at the event and clinched his third consecutive X Games title, said with a laugh at a post-wipeout interview: "I've been seeing stars."

White has experienced a list of injuries from his sport that makes one pity his mother: He fractured his skull, broke his right hand and right foot and was knocked unconscious -- all by age 11. White competes in the men's halfpipe event on Wednesday.

In addition to head injuries, snowboarders are susceptible to upper extremity injuries such as broken wrists and arms from reaching forward or backward to stop a fall, according to Sterett. In contrast, skiers tend to suffer injuries to their lower extremities and to their ligaments -- one leg can still be going forward while the other leg twists around, leading to a blown anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee.

One wrong move and . . .

"With these kids on the ski team," Sterett said, referring to the Olympic athletes, "especially in the downhill event when they go over 70 miles per hour down an icy ski hill with nothing but Lycra on their body and a helmet on their head, some bad things can happen pretty quickly."

Any number of things -- a caught ski edge, a too-tight turn or poor visibility -- can send a skier hurtling down the icy slope or off into the safety fences, as happened in dramatic fashion to Austrian skier Hermann Maier in the Nagano Games. Historian Wallechinsky cites Maier's horrific crash in the men's downhill in which he landed on his head then somersaulted three times and slammed into two rows of plastic fences as one of the worst he has seen in the Winter Olympics. "We just thought, that's it for Hermann," Wallechinsky recalls. "But lo and behold, he got up." Just 72 hours later, he won gold.

Wallechinsky says there has never been a competition-related death in the official Olympic Winter Games. However, it was just hours before the Opening Ceremonies on Friday that Georgian luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili, 21, was killed during a training run.

Sterett worries most about three things: head injuries that can become life-threatening, internal injuries such as ruptured spleens and orthopedic emergencies, such as broken legs, dislocated knees and torn ligaments.

Sterett has been tending to skier Lindsey Vonn (who graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated two weeks ago with the headline, "America's Best Woman Skier Ever") for 10 years. He says Vonn has had relatively few injuries during her career. At 13, Vonn fractured her tibia, or shin bone. In 2006, Vonn bruised her back and pelvis while training for the Turin Olympics; the next year, she sprained her ACL in another training crash. In February 2009, Vonn had to have surgery on her right thumb after injuring it on a broken champagne bottle while celebrating a victory. On Dec. 28, Vonn crashed during a giant slalom race and bruised her left hand and lower arm. Ten days before the Games began, she suffered a deep tissue bruise on her leg during a practice run. The injury has raised questions about how she'll do when she races.


Olympic skiing events are either Alpine or freestyle. Vonn, for instance, is an Alpine skier; freestyle events include moguls, aerials and what many consider the most dangerous event, skicross, which is when four skiers race to the bottom of a course, bumping into and cutting one another off. (There is also snowboardcross, which is equally dangerous.)

Freestyle coach Wintersteen started freestyle skiing in 1973, when it was called hotdogging. The aerials event involves spinning, somersaulting and flying off snow-packed hills, but he can't remember any aerialists who have suffered catastrophic injuries in the 37 years he has been involved with the sport. The aerial ramps, or "kickers," they launch from range in height from about 6 to 13 feet; much smaller than the 295- to 395-foot ramps from which the Olympic ski jumpers catapult themselves.

"Freestyle started in the '70s, and it was crazy in the '70s," he says. "Ski areas shut freestyle down because of injuries and they didn't want to risk the lawsuits. Because of that we've adapted [with a qualification process for new tricks] and had great safety."

He does expect to deal with plenty of busted-up knees of mogul skiers. It's a "punishing sport," he says, and it's more rare for a mogul skier to not to be dealing with a knee injury than to have one. Usually it's from a crash or wear and tear, but sometimes the skier hits the mogul wrong and hurts a ligament inside the knee.

"In moguls they all get injured," Wallechinsky, the historian, says. "That's just part of it. Your knees are never going to be the same again."

Rough sledding

In addition to overseeing the women's ski team, Sterett also helps man the U.S. Olympic team medical clinic in Whistler, B.C., where "sliders" -- luge, bobsled and skeleton athletes -- compete. At the 2006 Turin Olympics, Sterett saw a lot of facial cuts and scrapes from traveling so fast along a cement-hard ice surface.

One of those sliders, Katie Uhlaender, a 25-year-old skeleton athlete, is coming back from four knee surgeries to compete this week. Skeleton competitors travel headfirst (unlike luge, which is feet first) on a sled with no brakes, hitting speeds of up to 90 mph. Five years ago, her sled flipped over as she took a corner, landing on top of her and cracking her sternum.

She has also had her share of injuries from non-Olympic activities. In April 2008, for instance, Uhlaender blew out her right ACL and medial collateral ligament (MCL) while cross-country skiing. Then, in April 2009, she shattered her left knee into nine pieces in a "freak accident" while snowmobiling. Last August she broke it again, this time into four pieces, while she was dancing with friends in Las Vegas. ("A girl's knee hit mine and that's all it took. . . . It was pretty lame.") Though skeleton athletes are lying down in their sport, Uhlaender needs to be able to sprint at the start of each run. Though she was using crutches until mid-September and is still building muscle back on her left leg, she hopes the knee injury won't hold her back.

"I have some deep bone bruises, but those really aren't a big deal," she said in a recent interview. "They're just from hitting walls. My ankle is a little messed up and I think I have a broken pinkie toe. And on my shoulders I get some scrapes."

Uhlaender has seen others in her sport with much worse injuries, such as neck injuries from slamming headfirst into a wall, with their faces "getting pretty destroyed" from the helmets that are supposed to protect them. Once, she saw a competitor hit two track workers and shatter her collarbone (it's unclear what happened to the workers). "That kind of stuff scares the [heck] out of me because I have no brakes," Uhlaender says. After a pause, she adds, "That's the first time I've ever verbalized that."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company