Air bags on skiers coming soon?
What if Lindsey Vonn had been able to deploy an air bag before landing on her head in giant slalom training a couple weeks ago? Would the American have avoided the mild concussion that forced her out of the world championships?
Vonn’s fall was just the latest in a series of violent crashes that have marred ski racing lately, but it’s questions like those that have forced the International Ski Federation into radical talks with Italian manufacturer Dainese about developing a complicated air bag system to curb career-threatening injuries in the sport.
"It sounds interesting," Vonn said recently. "Anything they can come up with to make ski racing safer I’m all for. I don’t exactly know how that would necessarily work, but I’m all for safety precautions and anything they come up with I’m definitely interested in."
Vonn’s fall was tame compared to three nearly identical crashes on the feared Streif course in Kitzbuehel, Austria, over the last four years.
In 2008, American downhiller Scott Macartney sustained brain injuries and was kept in an induced coma after smashing his head on the icy slop following a crash at the final jump. The next year, Daniel Albrecht of Switzerland sustained life-threatening brain and lung injuries after a crash in the same exact spot.
Both racers recovered and returned to World Cup competition, but Austrian skier Hans Grugger is still hospitalized following a crash last month that resulted in emergency brain surgery.
The FIS is convinced that no helmet light enough for ski racing could prevent brain injuries after such high-speed crashes, and that’s why it has turned its attention to air bags.
Dainese has already developed a successful air bag system for motorcycle racing, but figuring out when to deploy the system for a skier heading toward the fences is proving tougher.
In motorcycle racing, the system ignites when the body leaves the bike with a forward rotation, whereas in skiing, the exact moment when a racer loses complete control varies from one crash to another.
FIS men’s race director Guenter Hujara suggested one indicator for release could come when a racer’s leg is raised over his or her head, then explained why that wouldn’t work — he’s watched five video sequences where Bode Miller, one of the most unconventional skiers on the circuit, raised his leg over his head and then recovered.
"We are very eager to get all the data to find the algorithm which defines this moment when all the forces are overloading the system of the ski racer," Hujara said. "If we know exactly when this moment exists, then we can install systems protecting the head, neck, shoulder, back, knee and maybe also start an ignition where the binding releases to get rid of the skis.
"It’s kind of a visionary project, but because it’s already existing in another sport we are very eager to follow up and what we have already is very promising," Hujara added, while at the same time warning that introducing the system is likely at least two years away.
In coordination with the University of Salzburg, the FIS’s Injury Surveillance System (ISS) has been studying ski racing injuries since January 2006, and is also researching safety solutions involving course setting, snow conditions and equipment.
Two-time overall World Cup winner Aksel Lund Svindal, who had a gruesome crash in 2007 at Beaver Creek, Colo., supports the air bag research — Dainese is one of his sponsors — but also suggests looking into less complicated solutions.
"The fact is we don’t really ski on snow a lot, we ski on ice, so are the helmets classified for impact on the snow surface or ice surface?" Svindal said. "And maybe the suits should be made by a protection supplier (rather) than just by a clothing supplier?"
American downhiller Steven Nyman doesn’t believe an air bag system will work.
"Everything is so sudden in ski racing. I don’t understand what will happen with an air bag system," he said. "The biggest problem I think is the skis are so wide. They changed them to wider skis saying it’s safer and I don’t think it’s safer at all, because you have more leverage and they bounce a lot more — they’re not as smooth.
"Think of a hockey skate where the blade under your foot is really smooth and solid," Nyman said. "Here it’s wide and it’s constantly wanting to go away."
Nyman would also like to see fewer turns on courses.
"Downhill needs to be more downhill," he said. "I feel like they’re trying to turn it to control our speed so we don’t crash, but we’re more fatigued, hence more crashes."
Changes don’t come easy in skiing. Just ask Hujara, who says many racers are still not aware of rule changes allowing athletes to wear protective padding covering virtually any body part.
"We saw it this year when the first racers started to use shin and knee protectors it became an issue, but it’s been permitted for three years," Hujara said. "The racers do not like to change. They do not like to change boots. They do not like to change underwear. They do not like to change protectors."
But something has to change, which the Canadian team realizes after it was hit by an usually high number of injuries — part of the reason it didn’t win a single medal in Alpine skiing at its home Olympics in Vancouver last year.
"Right now, it’s quite difficult for parents to send their young kids into the sport," said Canada Alpine director Patrick Riml, adding that a safety symposium has been scheduled in the country for later this year.
Safety issues, of course, are not new to skiing. Austrian racer Ulrike Maier died from injuries following a crash in Garmisch in 1994.
"The bottom line is that Alpine ski racing involves speed and courage, therefore also some residual risk," FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal, a two-time super-G world champion. "However, we are doing our utmost to create the safest possible frames for our sport."