Since 2006, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been adding new events to the Olympic Games to attract younger audiences. These exciting new events are increasingly sensational. They demand that athletes push the limits of their abilities to compete. But, what if pushing the boundaries can have catastrophic consequences? Have the Olympic Games become unreasonably dangerous?
Everyone accepts that injuries happen in sports. But, how well do people understand the risks involved? As parents choose activities for their children, they may not understand the injury rates and lifetime consequences of those athletic pursuits.
If you were asked to sign a liability waiver for your child's participation in an activity that claimed one in 10 of the participants would get seriously injured at the event, would you sign it? Would that be an acceptable risk? That was the overall injury rate at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. That said, not all sports were equally dangerous.
In 2006, the IOC added the exciting snowboard cross competition where up to six athletes race down a challenging, narrow course meant to test their agility. Inevitably, there are collisions and crashes. According to the IOC's detailed injury tracking at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, an incredible 35 percent of the ski and snowboard cross athletes were injured, making it far and away the most dangerous sport there.
Despite the inherent danger and high injury rates, the IOC and Sochi organizers upped the ante for the 2014 Games, creating even more challenging courses at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Twenty-one-year-old U.S. skier Faye Gulini told reporters, "We don't usually have courses that have jumps this big."
Also, the IOC added the slopestyle events, where athletes do tricks on rails and perform huge spinning jumps. At Sochi, the final jump on the slopestyle course was an astounding 72-feet high. Finland's Roope Tonteri told reporters, "it's a bit scary. I just don't want to get injured." Canadian snowboarder, Sebastien Toutant, told reporters it "feels like jumping out of a building."
On February 3, during a practice run, Norwegian slopestyle medal hopeful Torstein Horgmo fractured his collarbone, putting him out of competition. The next day during practice, Finland's Marika Enne hit her head sustaining a competition-ending concussion.
Later that day, Shaun White, the biggest name in snowboarding, dropped a bomb on the event, announcing that he would not participate in the slopestyle competition due to safety concerns. The 27-year-old White claimed that the course was "too dangerous." Rather than risk injury, he would focus on his main goal of trying to win the halfpipe.
White was criticized by some of his competitive rivals. The young Canadian, 19-year old, Maxence Parrot, took to Twitter to goad White for being afraid to lose. Eventual gold medalist, U.S. snowboarder, Sage Kotsenburg, defended the course telling CBS reporters, "It's what we should be jumping at this level. It's the Olympics."
In hindsight, the false bravado of some, the understated concern of others and the withdrawal of snowboarding's biggest star should have seemed like ominous foreshadowing. These are relatively fearless people, by nature.
The skiing and snowboarding events saw a slew of injuries in Sochi. Nobody died, but there were serious injuries. Concussions such as Enne's can take months to overcome. Czech slopestyle skier, Sarko Pancochova, was leading after her first run when she hit her head so hard it split her helmet in half. American snowboarder, Jacqueline Hernandez, hit her head so hard she lost consciousness and left the hill on a stretcher. There were numerous fractures, including an elbow, a cheekbone, ankles and knees. The most common injuries were knee ligament and meniscal tears. All these injuries happened in just 17 days. Imagine the risk of training for these sports year round.
The most serious injury occurred on February 15, as Russia's pre-eminent Freestyle skier, Maria Komissarova crashed, fracturing her spine. She was airlifted to a nearby hospital where she underwent emergency surgery to stabilize her fractured T12 vertebra. Later, she was transported to Munich for another surgery and ongoing treatment. On February 26, Komissarova reported via Instagram that she is paralyzed from the waist down.
Paralysis is rare, but serious injury is the norm. Komissarova herself missed six months of the 2013 season because of a knee injury. Dozens of athletes were sidelined in Sochi, or leading up to the Games, by knee injuries, ranging from fractures to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. Canadian veteran skier Jan Hudec has had four ACL reconstructions over his career. 2010 Olympic Gold medalist and 4-time world cup champion Lindsey Vonn has had two ACL tears in the last year, preventing her from competing in Sochi. French snowboarder and Sochi snowboard cross gold medalist Pierre Vaultier tore his ACL in December and competed with a brace to stabilize the knee, until he undergoes surgery.
Recovery from an ACL tear is an involved process, in which surgical reconstruction using a suitable graft is required to stabilize the knee. Following surgery, it can take six months of intensive physiotherapy to return to sport safely. Even then, the risk of recurrence is high. Long-term complications are rarely discussed. But, patients should expect premature knee osteoarthritis, an eventuality that is exacerbated with every recurrence. ACL injuries are virtually epidemic in skiing and snowboarding.
What should we think of a competition where one in three of the world's best athletes are sustaining injuries from which they may never fully recover? How dangerous do these sports need to be to attract viewers? Is the IOC properly mitigating the risk and are they motivated to do so? Are Olympic Sports safe for the next generation?