By JOHN BRANCH FEB. 18, 2014
... Most of the accidents have occurred at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events like halfpipe, slopestyle and moguls.
And most of the injuries have been sustained by women.
Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that either forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The injury rate is higher when considering that the men’s fields are generally larger.
The question, a difficult one, is why.
The Winter Games have always had dangerous events. But the Extreme Park, as the name suggests, is built on the ageless allure of danger.
As Lance Murdock, professional daredevil, told Bart and Lisa Simpson, "It's always good to see young people taking an interest in danger."
All of the events there have been added to the Olympic docket since 1992, each a tantalizing cocktail of grace and peril.
But unlike some of the time-honored sports of risk, including Alpine skiing, luge and ski jumping, there are few concessions made for women. For both sexes, the walls of the halfpipe are 22 feet tall. The slopestyle course has the same tricky rails and the same massive jumps. The course for ski cross and snowboard cross, a six-person race to the finish over jumps and around icy banked curves, is the same for men and women. The jumps for aerials are the same height. The bumps in moguls play no gender favorites.
“Most of the courses are built for the big show, for the men,” said Kim Lamarre of Canada, the bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, where the competition was delayed a few times by spectacular falls. “I think they could do more to make it safer for women.”
Compare the sports with downhill skiing, in which women have their own course, one that is shorter and less difficult to navigate. Or luge, in which female sliders start lower on the track than the men. Or ski jump, in which women were finally allowed to participate this year, but only on the smaller of the two hills.
The Olympics have a history — sexist, perhaps — of trying to protect women from the perils of some sports.
But equality reigns at the Extreme Park, even to the possible detriment of the female participants.
“When we practice, we don’t practice on the same jumps as the men,” said J. F. Cusson, ski slopestyle coach for Canada and a former X Games gold medalist.
Slopestyle is the event that Bob Costas was derided as an old man for comparing to something out of the Jackass movies: it's like a mountainside skateboard park.
Another new wrinkle is that skiers are now doing the crazy stuff that snowboarders have been doing, and skis are much faster than boards, so they go faster and higher. (The advantage of snowboards is that they are slow, so you don't need as big a ski mountain to have fun on, so more people can snowboard more locally and thus more often.)
“They’re too big for them. But when they compete, they have to jump on the same jumps, so they get hurt. It’s a big concern of mine.” ...
In some of the events, like the halfpipe and moguls, athletes can decide how fast or high they want to go. But in sports like slopestyle and snowboard and ski cross, they have to maintain a certain speed to launch themselves a certain distance to negotiate the course. Slowing down can be just as dangerous as going fast, and few medals are earned with the brakes on.
Olympic organizers want to build courses and competitions that are the equal, at least, of the Winter X Games, where most of the Extreme Park events gained wide popularity. But the invitation-only X Games have small fields, often 10 or fewer of the world’s best. The Olympics, by design, want larger fields with a wide cross-section of countries. The drop-off in talent between top athletes and the bottom of the field can be drastic.
Especially on the women's side. In most women's sports, the marginal competitors are pretty weak.
There were concerns about slopestyle, which made its Olympic debut here, from the beginning. Men and women worried aloud about the course during training, complaining mostly about jumps bigger than many had seen before. The American snowboarder Shaun White said the course could be “intimidating,” and then pulled out of the competition, worried that an injury would spoil his chance to compete in the gentler confines of the halfpipe.
Let's pause on that: Too intimidating for the Snowboarder Formerly Known as the Flying Tomato ...
I watched men's ski slopestyle (skis are faster than snowboards, so the jumps are immense) and the only way they could have made that even more entertaining was if they had allowed competitors to fire shoulder-mounted Stinger surface-to-air missiles at each other.
“There’s a lot of consequence on that course,” Charles Reid of Canada said.
But the men managed to negotiate the slopestyle course with just one Olympic-ending injury. The women had far more difficulty.
... The slopestyle course did present options, including two ramps at each of the three big jumps, one slightly smaller than the other. About half the women’s field used the smaller jumps in qualifications (none of the men did), and a few of the 12 finalists used the smaller jumps, but that did not prevent injuries.
“I see it every contest,” Cusson said. “Unless they are forced to hit the smaller side, the best ones will always go for the bigger jumps. They want to prove to everybody that they are capable. And then all the other girls will follow.”
While men are now attempting triple flips, women are not to the point of doing doubles. Cusson believes that the smaller jumps are sufficient for the tricks that women are doing. At last year’s world championships in Norway, Cusson required his team to use the smaller jumps to limit injuries. Some women were upset, afraid that their scores from judges would be lower without the greater risk. But Canada finished first, second and fifth in the competition.
“If all the girls did it, if they all hit the smaller jump, the problem would be solved,” Cusson said.
But most women grew up in a time when they view themselves as capable as men.
Women are just built less ruggedly. Here's Michael Sokolove's book Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports.
On the positive side, the helmets they wear are the bicycle kind that you throw away after an impact rather than football helmets which have to last a long time. And sports surgery has improved radically over the years. What proportion of top sports surgeons live in Aspen or Park City or other winter wonderlands?