SOCHI, Russia — The word on the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park course was not good. The same went for talk at the nearby Alpine Center where downhill skiers found perilous conditions prior to the men’s race on Sunday.
Snowboarders known for daredevil attitudes and gravity-defying tricks voiced concern about the collection of obstacles — rails, boxes, and jumps — for the slopestyle event. The jumps seemed dangerously high and the rails uncomfortably slick.
Canadian Sebastien Toutant said the course felt like “jumping out of a building.” A medal contender from Norway broke his collarbone. A Finnish competitor suffered a concussion and left the course on a stretcher.
But the biggest blow to the competition came less than 24 hours before slopestyle made its Olympic debut with qualifying runs on Thursday.
Shaun White, the most recognizable snowboarder in the world, withdrew from the event and cited “the potential risk of injury” in his announcement.
White jammed his left wrist during a practice run and worried about hurting his chances at a third consecutive gold medal in the halfpipe if something else went awry in slopestyle.
On the final men’s downhill training run Saturday, US skier Marco Sullivan lost control of his skis on the exceptionally steep and icy terrain.
Teammate Bode Miller told reporters Sullivan “almost killed himself.” Other skiers struggled to reach the finish, including four who pulled up to avoid serious injury.
After posting the fastest time of the day, Miller cautioned that competitors needed to pay close attention to their every move or “this course will kill you.” It was an ominous warning for downhill skiers who pursue speed with almost reckless abandon.
The White withdrawal and Miller warning, however, were about more than one big-name athlete worried about safety. It seemed to signal a tipping point in the world of extreme sports, as well as other high-flying, high-risk events such as luge, skeleton, bobsled, freeskiing, aerials, and Alpine skiing.
While Olympic athletes pride themselves on pushing limits, some competitions may be getting too dangerous even for the daredevils, especially as the Games place more of an emphasis on extreme sports and reward risk-taking in events stressing speed and aerial tricks with medals.
Walking a fine line
“There’s definitely a fine balance between making sure you do cool things and you push yourself and you hit that fear barrier,” said Ashley Caldwell, who came back from torn ligaments in both knees to compete in aerials at the Sochi Games.
“Our sport is inherently scary, and you have to make sure you scare yourself every once in a while so you remember what it’s like and you figure out how to handle it. At the same time, you don’t want to get hurt.”
The Sochi slopestyle course renewed the debate over how many risky midair tricks are too many, even for elite athletes. The same how-much-is-too-much concern surfaced in the Alpine skiing speed events on both the men’s and women’s side. On Thursday, race officials halted women’s downhill training after three skiers flew dangerously high off the course’s final jump. US skier Laurenne Ross likened herself to a “test dummy” for being one of the three competitors who took a practice run before the break in the action. Ross said she was “definitely intimidated” by the original course setup.
While the men’s downhill skiers made it through their early training runs, the course layout at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center with its treacherously steep initial descent that quickly pushes athletes to speeds of 90 miles per hour.
At those speeds, the Lake Jump near the finish propelled skiers roughly 275 feet in the air frrom takeoff to touch down
Snowboarders and freeskiers typically execute tricks more than three stories above the ground in halfpipe and soar high and long on slopestyle courses.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, home to the fastest sliding track in the world, bobsledders reached nearly 95 miles per hour and many lugers topped 90.
Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was killed at the Vancouver track when he lost control of his sled at 89.7 miles per hour and crashed into a support pole. His death cast a pall over the Games and forced Sochi officials to reexamine their track design. The Sochi sliding course has three uphill sections that keep luge speeds around 85 miles per hour.
“It’s definitely safer [than Vancouver],” said bobsled pilot Elana Myers. “There will not be as many crashes, but driving fast on this track will be a challenge.”
Added fellow pilot Jazmine Fenlator, “I really like the technical side of Sochi. I think bobsled has realized that the sport isn’t all about speed. It’s also about driving.”
The question of where to draw the line on danger can be tough for sports officials and athletes to answer.
Part of the thrill of watching speed events is seeing how fast athletes can go and how far they can fly off jumps. Sports like snowboarding, freeskiing, and aerials attract fans with the jaw-dropping extremity of what top athletes do.
All the better if an athlete is the first to attempt a certain combination of spins, twists and flips.
Competitors earn the most points for the most difficult, original tricks. To do multiple twists and flips, athletes need to get s far off the snow as possible.
Athletes in these sports pride themselves on flirting with the danger zone and risking serious injury. They wouldn’t be at the Olympics if they didn’t want to try the most difficult tricks and go faster than their peers.
“We’re pushing the limits every day,” said freeskier Devin Logan, who will compete in the women’s slopestyle in Sochi. “But it’s personal preference. We all have a couple screws loose and that’s why we do this.
“We’re pushing the limits, but landing that one trick and getting that adrenaline rush, that high, that’s why we do it. We want to be unstoppable.”
Still, after she “went too big” — pushing herself too far and losing control — and blew out her knee, Logan learned the hard way that no one is unstoppable.
It is a lesson reinforced regularly, as it is rare to find an Olympic skier or snowboarder who hasn’t suffered a major knee injury or amassed a long list of broken bones.
And there is danger of even more serious injury than that.
Even best are at risk
Freeskiing pioneer and one-time halfpipe gold medal favorite Sarah Burke died from brain damage sustained in a 2012 training crash, proving that even the best put themselves at risk every time they hit the snow.
The Canadian was the first woman to land a 720-, a 900-, and a 1,080-degree spin in competition, as she constantly pushed the limits of her sport. She also fought for the inclusion of freeskiing at the Sochi Games.
The day before Burke died, Logan trained with her.
“We know the risks of the sport,” said Logan. “She knew them. We know what we’re getting ourselves into.
“There’s always fear. We’re trying new tricks. We’re trying not to land on our heads. We’re trying to make our sport the safest it can be. But it’s an action sport and we do this for ourselves and for the fans to make it look cool.
“Sarah was doing a trick she did every single day. It can be the smallest things. We can catch an edge and fall and break our collarbones. Things happen. You can’t control it.”
Burke suffered her fatal injury at the same Park City superpipe where snowboarder Kevin Pearce sustained a traumatic brain injury that nearly cost him his life and ended his competitive career.
Before his accident, Pearce was expected to challenge White for gold in the halfpipe at Vancouver.
He was attempting to land a double cork — a twisting double backflip that is one of the most difficult snowboarding tricks — when he fell and slammed his head on the icy, concrete-hard bottom of the halfpipe and ended up in a coma.
In the immediate aftermath, it was uncertain whether Pearce would survive.
Scotty Lago, the 2010 Olympic halfpipe bronze medalist, was one of the first people to reach Pearce as he lay on the bottom of the halfpipe. Lago has no problem admitting his fears when it comes to competitive snowboarding.
“A lot of times, you’re super scared, but those usually aren’t the times you get hurt,” said Lago. “The times you’re hurt are when you’re having fun.
“It’s pretty much a safe sport, but you’ve got to push yourself. You’ve got to be trying new stuff and making it look good by going high.
“Learning a trick is hard. You’ve got to see it in your head first. If you can see it in your head and you can see yourself doing it, then it’s as good as gold. But if you’re not seeing it clearly, I don’t suggest trying it.”
Precautions being taken
The way many athletes in high-risk sports see it, they are responsible for taking the necessary safety precautions during practices and competitions.
For extreme athletes, that often means time invested training with water ramps and trampolines and airbags.
Even when Lago can visualize a new trick clearly, he doesn’t try it for the first time on snow without perfect conditions. Other snowboarders use airbags to soften landings in the trick-learning phase. The US aerials team follows strict guidelines when adding new tricks to an athlete’s repertoire.
“You have to do a certain amount of jumps on water before you take that jump to snow,” said three-time (2006, 2010, 2014) aerials Olympian Emily Cook of Belmont, Mass. “Also, your coaches have to approve it by you performing five of that trick properly, safely, efficiently before it goes to snow.
“So when it comes down to it, it’s not really my choice. If I’m not performing a trick safely on water, I don’t get to do it on snow.’’
Additionally, the governing bodies have made qualifying for major events like the Olympics more difficult, hoping to make sure less-experienced athletes don’t get overwhelmed by challenging jumps or courses.
No more Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards of ski jumping fame who participated in the 1988 Calgary Games. No repeat of the frightened competitor who snowplowed down Val D’Isere during the 1992 Albertville Games.
In Sochi, with a desire to stay safe and still put on the best show, slopestyle snowboarders confronted officials with their concerns, many commenting that the obstacles as originally constructed were too scary or, as White said, “intimidating.”
The athletes focused their criticism on the overbuilt jumps, and officials trimmed the tops of the jumps and smoothed out the bottoms.
In the women’s downhill, workers shaved down the problematic final jump and moved a gate before the jump to slow racers, but that was not without controversy. One gold-medal contender complained that the course now was too slow.
So it remains difficult to find the right balance between making events safe for the athletes and playing it too safe for competitors who thrive on danger.Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.