Counting the cost of injuries

Television viewers love it and young people consider it so cool it is ''sick''. But slopestyle skiing and snowboarding - the new sport at the Sochi Winter Olympics - has at least one highly-placed medical official worried by the injury toll. Mark Price reports.

The medal stats were there, on television screens, instantly - and Winter Olympics viewers will be aware New Zealand's tally got stuck on zero.

But there is another tally that could have an impact on the future of slopestyle at the Olympics - the tally of injuries.

The injury analysis has yet to be completed.

But that did not stop Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Oslo, Lars Engebretsen, revealing his personal opinion of slopestyle to Associated Press journalist John Leicester three weeks after the end of the games.

He considered slopestyle - where skiers and snowboarders perform aerial ''tricks'' - should be dropped from future Olympics if the discipline did not reduce the injury rate.

''To me it was unacceptably high, absolutely ... very, very, very high.

''Right now the injury rate as it was in Sochi was too high to be a sport that we have in the Olympics,'' Prof Engebretsen was quoted as saying.

Dr Engebretsen's views carry weight because he is the head of scientific activities at the International Olympic Committee's medical and scientific department.

He will be aware that buried deep within the Olympic movement's medical code is a general principle that begins: ''No practice constituting any form of physical injury or psychological harm to athletes should be acceptable.''

In email correspondence with the Otago Daily Times, Dr Engebretsen pulled back from repeating his slopestyle comments, which he said had not been intended for publication.

''The comments were based on personal clinical experience, from treating a number of athletes over the last few years and ... were not based on any statistics or data from Sochi, so no conclusions can or should be drawn from them.''

''Analysis of the injury data from Sochi is not yet completed, but clinical reports indicate that in freestyle, slopestyle and snowboard cross in Sochi there were no serious fractures or other significant injuries apart from a number of knee ligament sprains.

''It is wrong to draw any preliminary conclusions based on these [media] reports until the overall injury statistics are analysed.''

However, while Prof Engebretsen has speculated the IOC would give slopestyle another chance, the discipline could be seen to be on notice.

Many of the slopestyle Olympians trained at the Cardrona Alpine Resort near Wanaka before the games and some of them will be back once the ski season begins next month.

The New Zealand Olympic team's chef de mission Pete Wardell, of Lake Hawea, accepts slopestyle is not for the faint-hearted.

''You stand at the top of that slopestyle [course] and you say: 'you have got to be kidding me'.''

But, he told the ODT this week, the risks with slopestyle were no greater than with other ''sliding sports'', such as luge.

''There has always been that concern but if you look at the death rate, or attrition rate, they are similar for sliding sports.

''There are one or two knockers of the new sports that are there but I think slopestyle ... had massive media ratings around the world.''

The team's head high performance coach Tom Willmott, of Wanaka, told the ODT representatives of the International Ski Federation he had spoken to were ''slightly confused'' by Prof Engebretsen's comments because slopestyle did not have a ''significantly higher'' injury rate than several other disciplines.

Mr Willmott agreed there was a moral question for officials to consider when allowing athletes to develop more and more spectacular and difficult tricks.

''There is definitely an argument and that argument is the same when it's rugby league. There have been recent major injuries in that.

''I think it's a general sporting question.''

Mr Willmott said coaches kept a ''very close eye'' on athletes' physical and mental fatigue and on the design of slopestyle courses.

One development had been a change in the nature of jumps with a move away from ''step-down'' jumps where the landing was significantly lower than the take off to ''table-top'' or ''step-up'' jumps where the landing was the same or higher than the take off.

''Your forward speed remains the same but you have got less downward speed, so there's less impact.''

He too noted the television ratings were ''very, very strong'' for slopestyle and he believed it would continue to be a part of the Winter Olympics.

The most frequently asked question that comes the way of Stacey Wells, of Wanaka, is: ''Do you get nervous ...''

Her answer is ''no''.

Mrs Wells is the mother of Jossi, Byron and Beau-James who all competed at the Olympics - Jossi and Beau-James in slopestyle - and has seen the sport develop from its earliest days.

''I recognise it is a dangerous sport and the injury part is huge ... but I've never really concentrated on that,'' she told the ODT this week.

''It might be just a human defence mechanism that I don't really think and worry about them getting hurt.''

But aside from her being ''a pretty relaxed person'', there were another couple of reasons for her lack of worry.

One is that her sons have been taking risks on the snow since they were very young but their risk-taking has always been ''calculated'' and carried out in consultation with their coach, her husband Bruce.

''It's been a real progression of building up to a point where they can confidently go and do that trick.

''Bruce has always taught the boys - right from when they were little - good risk management.''

There was also the use during training of airbags - ''a big pillow of air''.

''When they are learning a new cutting-edge trick, it's always practised into the air bag.''

However, Mrs Wells does have a question of her own.

Should the move to ever-bigger jumps and ever-more-difficult ''tricks'' be limited at some point?

''You do wonder where it will all stop.

''Bruce and I have often had the discussion about where you think it could go so that it actually doesn't get out of hand.''

She has seen how much more difficult the tricks have become as athletes search for new ways to impress the judges.

''They have to do something that makes the judges think they are better than everybody else.

''So that's why in the competition world you wonder where it's going to stop.''

However, she believed the idea of not having slopestyle in the Olympics was a ''pretty crazy'' one because it was only one of many slopestyle competitions.

''You can take it out of the Olympics, but it's not going to make any difference to anybody.

''[The athletes] are doing what they are doing because they love it.''

''The people who do slopestyle, they are just passionate about what they do.''

So if they don't feel scared ...

Risky business
Some skifields in the United States do not have facilities for slopestyle because of the risk of being sued by someone who hurts themselves.

There is no such concern in New Zealand where the Accident Compensation Commission picks up the bill for sports injuries.

However, ACC does not keep tabs on individual ski disciplines, noting only that snow sports injuries overall resulted in 7495 claims worth $7,484,237 last year - almost half occurring in the Central Otago-Queenstown Lakes District Council areas.

ACC says 70% of snow sports injuries happen when someone falls over and most falls are from losing control.

- mark.price@odt.co.nz