The Winter Olympics returned to the headlines over the weekend with an International Olympic Committee official saying the games’ latest additions — skier and snowboard slopestyle — had an “unacceptably high” risk and should be dropped from future games if the sports don’t address safety concerns.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Lars Engebretsen, the IOC’s head of scientific activities, was quoted as saying slopestyle injuries were “much higher than any other sport in Sochi.”
While ski and snowboard slopestyle have a long history in events like the X Games and Dew Tour, they joined skier halfpipe as new additions to this year’s games in Sochi, Russia.
Engebretsen called for drastic measures regarding slopestyle in future Olympic competitions.
“Right now the injury rate as it was in Sochi was too high to be a sport that we have in the Olympics,” he said.
Specific numbers regarding injuries were not released.
Following the story, the IOC released a statement saying the comments were Engebretsen’s personal comments and “do not represent the position of the IOC.”
The statement explained that injury data from Sochi had yet to be assessed.
“In regard to the slopestyle events that took place in Sochi, it would be premature to comment on the quantity and quality of injuries that occurred as the full IOC Injury and Illness Surveillance Study conducted by the IOC Medical Commission has not yet been finalized.”
Once complete, the data will be compared with injuries that have occurred in other World Cup and World Championship events.
Established in 2008 by the International Skiing Federation, the Injury Surveillance System was designed to study the rate of injuries in any given discipline in an attempt to reduce risks.
This latest story was just one of a number of critical assessments of Russia’s recent Winter Games. But while Engebretsen cited the sport itself as dangerous, athletes offered a decidedly different perspective during the games.
Snowboarders Shaun White and Danny Davis were among athletes openly critical of both the halfpipe and slopestyle courses.
In a phone interview Wednesday, four-time Olympic snowboarder and 2006 halfpipe bronze medalist Kjersti Buaas, of Norway, told the Summit Daily News that it was the Sochi course that was the problem, not slopestyle as a discipline.
“This was my least favorite course out of any I’ve ridden,” she said. “I think they were trying to build it huge to make it look spectacular. We had never seen anything like it. It wasn’t the style and standard of course that we are used to.”
Buaas crashed on a jump during qualifiers, rupturing a muscle in her stomach and injuring her back. She was also critical of the amount of time snowboarders were given to practice on the course.
“They weren’t done,” she said. “The first day (of practice) we weren’t able to jump.”
Buass acknowledged that course designers later made adjustments to the course and that fellow riders said it improved.
“They did change it, but that took off a practice day for us,” she said. “If we (competed) later in the week, maybe it would have been better.”
She cited both the lack of practice time and the design of the course as contributing factors to injuries.
When reached for comment fellow Olympian and slopestyle freeskier Keri Herman declined to discuss the specific nature of the course at Sochi, but did defended her discipline.
“I think slopestyle is an amazing sport. If you build a safe course, it’s a safe sport,” she said. “We’re professional athletes. I ski park almost every day of the year and I’m fine.”
While not openly critical of the Sochi course like Buass, Herman said it was scary initially, but that the designers considered rider input and made appropriate changes.
The Minnesota native now calls Breckenridge Ski Resort her home mountain and also skis in nearby Keystone Resort’s Area 51 park, in part because of both mountains’ dedication to well-designed park features.
Some athletes, including Buass, questioned the IOC’s controversial choice for course designer, contracting a lesser known Swedish company, Snowpark Consulting, over popular Nevada-based Snow Park Technologies — designers of the annual X Games and Dew Tour courses.
“When you hit the jumps at X Games they are big, but they are so well built,” Buass said, commending SPT. “We have such a great communication with them, it makes a huge difference.”
Herman agreed: “SPT, they’re the best course builders in the world. They build massive courses. They’re a great example.”
She said with a company like them you know what to expect every time.
Considering the popularity of the new events, slopestyle is unlikely to be eliminated after just one Olympic appearance. IOC officials said they will continue to evaluate the new sport along with all winter disciplines going forward. Safety and security concerns are regularly assessed in all Olympic sports and taken into consideration when adding or removing events.