Olympic Athletes Risk Limbs in Crashes at Sochi Extreme ParkChris Spillane
Cameron Bolton was approaching a jump when he clipped Italy’s Omar Visintin in the Olympic men’s snowboard cross semifinal. The Australian fell on his face before getting hit by another Italian, Luca Matteotti.
“Welcome to boardercross,” Nick Baumgartner, a U.S. snowboarder, said during an interview as Bolton was left with a bloody face and a suspected broken wrist. “It’s fun to watch, we put on a good show every time. When you’re in the air, you do whatever you can to survive. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.”
Of the 38 athletes competing in the event at Sochi’s Rosa Khutor Extreme Park yesterday, 13 were disqualified or didn’t finish as crashes and falls drew gasps and sharp intakes of breath from spectators. France’s Pierre Vaultier won gold while Nikolay Olyunin of Russia beat American Alex Deibold to take silver for the host country.
The final of the snowboard cross, also known as boardercross, was postponed by a day because of dense fog on the hill, but the murky conditions returned during the event’s latter stages while freezing rain made the snow slushy and exposed ice. The injury toll at the Winter Games is rising as bad weather and risk-taking by athletes combine to provide an element of danger that fans crave, yet has some competitors being carried off on stretchers.
In snowboard cross, athletes race in groups of as many as six on terrain featuring cambered turns, gap jumps, drops and flat sections over 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) with a vertical drop of 213 meters.
‘Lot of Slush’
Among the casualties was Canada’s Kevin Hill, 27, who ended up with his face bloodied and his ski goggles broken into four pieces after a fall. Such was the amount of rain on the course it reminded him of water sports.
“Because of the wet conditions, there’s a lot of slush, and underneath the slush there’s ice, and I hit my face on the ice,” Hill said in an interview. “I wouldn’t mind if I was swimming when I was racing, as long as I get to the bottom. I’m happy to be safe and happy to be going home healthy.”
Bolton, who finished 11th, was winded for about 30 seconds during one of his two crashes and was scheduled to see a doctor later yesterday.
“I’m a little bit worse for wear,” the 23-year-old said after the race. “I think my wrist is broken. I got it strapped up and got out there and crashed again. I hit it somewhere in there, but I don’t think I hurt it any further in that last crash as I hit my head and rolled around and hit some other things.”
The number of athletes injured during Sochi 2014 isn’t significantly different to the previous games in Vancouver four years ago, according to Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee.
“Winter sports are not without their risks, but we don’t see any difference between this games and the last one,” he told reporters Feb. 17. “The ski federation, as I understand, is very happy with the venue.”
The IOC, which has added new so-called extreme sports to boost interest among younger audiences, declined to say how many athletes have been injured so far.
Bode Miller, the oldest alpine skiing medalist, today aggravated a knee injury during the men’s giant slalom at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center. He said “it looks like” it will be his final Olympic event and he may now miss the slalom event on Feb. 22.
Extreme sports accounted for some of the most high-profile crashes and injuries. Ski-cross racer Maria Komissarova of Russia broke her spine during a practice run at the Extreme Park and is being treated in Munich after undergoing surgery in Krasnaya Polyana, the nearest town to the venue.
Canadian skier Yuki Tsubota suffered a mild concussion and a fractured cheekbone in a Feb. 11 crash during the women’s slopestyle event, when athletes soar and slide over obstacles before launching themselves off progressively larger jumps. The 20-year-old landed short and was taken off the course on a stretcher. She has returned home to see if she needs surgery.
“Those who will win will take risks and make no mistakes,” men’s parallel giant slalom snowboarder Andrey Sobolev of Russia said today. “You obviously always have to take some risks, because without it you’ll never make it. The course is very difficult, as it has been very well prepared and the snow is hard, so a lot of riders commit errors.”
During the women’s snowboard cross event on Feb. 16, Jacqueline Hernandez of the U.S. was carried off after she banged her head, as was Norway’s Helene Olafsen with a knee injury.
“This is a great course but it’s intimidating,” said 21-year-old Faye Gulini of the U.S., who finished fourth. “We don’t usually have courses that have jumps this big. These big features scare people but it’s fun and that’s what we need to separate the field.”
Aerial skiing also poses injury risks. The competitors start at a height of 1,075 meters and slide down a ramp at speeds of more than 65 kilometers (40 miles) an hour before launching themselves into the air. They’re judged on execution of tricks, height achieved and style, as well as on their landing.
Aerials skier Christopher Lambert of Switzerland was another victim of Extreme Park with a suspected dislocated elbow. Britain’s Rowan Cheshire, a skier in the women’s halfpipe event, withdrew from the games after being knocked unconscious during training.
“With a concussion injury there needs to be a rest period followed by a graduated return to play phase,” the British team’s chief medical officer Niall Elliott said in a statement. “The time scale is unfortunately too tight for Rowan.”
Although the danger and speed draw fans, such as 40-year-old Robert Campbell from Atlanta, he says there should be limits to the risks that athletes are running in snowboard cross.
“I want to see ‘big air’ but safely,” the construction manager said in an interview. “The outdoor element has something to do with it too. In speedskating there’s definitely not as much risk for a big injury, big fall.”
U.S. snowboarder Baumgartner, 32, says “anything can happen” in such a demanding sports event.
“We’re a winter sport so we’re not used to doing this very often,” he said. “It’s crazy. When you hit the ground with your head it’s a lot softer in these conditions, maybe it’s like a pillow.”