Injuries rack up during Sochi Games
1 in 10 Olympians hurt in previous Winter Games; extreme sports could add to tally
Friday saw another series of spectacular falls at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, home to the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events at the Sochi Games.
At least three women – including Canadian Georgia Simmerling – crashed during Friday’s ski cross semifinals in which Canadians Marielle Thompson and Kelsey Serwa went on to take gold and silver.
The 2014 Winter Games have been marked by numerous injuries, putting the spotlight on the dozen medal events introduced at these Olympics to attract a younger audience.
“I think we’re going to see more and more [injuries] as the games seem to be moving more … toward the next model,” said Janice Forsyth, director of the Western University’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, “because they’re borrowing more sports from the extreme sports model, like from Red Bull Crashed Ice and the X Games.”
The past few Olympics have typically seen one in 10 athletes injured during the Games.
Some fear the extreme sports may trigger a rise in that figure, but officials won’t know the Sochi numbers for a couple of months.
On Friday, Germany’s Anna Woerner tore a knee ligament and fractured her right shin after losing her balance halfway down the course and cartwheeling. Chile’s Stephanie Joffroy also crashed in the quarter-final heat. There were no immediate reports on the nature of her injury.
Canada’s Georgia Simmerling took a tumble and stayed down for a bit, but appeared to escape serious injury.
The three were competing on the same course where the most serious injury of the Games happened. During training on the weekend, Russia’s Maria Komissarova fractured her spine. She has undergone two surgeries and had a metal implant inserted in her spine.
‘There will be accidents’
Numerous athletes have been forced out of competitions or required medical attention after crashes at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, home to the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events.
Officials, however, maintain that the courses are safe, despite complaints from athletes and coaches about conditions at some of the skiing venues, plus added concerns due to warm weather and wet snow.
“Ultimately, there will be accidents, but in terms of actually pinning it down to the conditions, absolutely not,” International Skiing Federation secretary general Sarah Lewis said on Friday. “These things are a hazard of the competition.”
Canadian Olympic Committee Chef de Mission Steve Podborski also chimed in with a glowing review about the course, saying Canadian skiers were “pumped” about the ski cross course.
"They are just raving about it," said Podborski. "They love the courses and love the technical challenges."
No different from Vancouver
Among the more striking injuries in the past week, women’s snowboard cross competitors Helene Olafsen of Norway and Jacqueline Hernandez of the U.S.A. were both taken off on stretchers on Sunday.
Last Tuesday, Canadian freestyle skier Yuki Tsubota fractured her cheekbone after it slammed into her knee when she crashed on her final jump of the course.
Aerials skier Christopher Lambert of Switzerland is believed to have dislocated his elbow during a fall, while ski halfpipe athlete Rowan Cheshire of Great Britain was knocked unconscious during training.
Following the Russian ski cross skier’s spinal fracture, Olympic officials stressed that the Sochi Games don’t differ from previous games in terms of injuries.
“Winter sports are not without their risks, but we don’t see any difference between this Games and the last one,” said International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams earlier this week.
A research group inside the IOC’s medical commission is watching athlete injuries closely to tally them up and compare them to past Games, including Beijing in 2008, Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012.
Though their official findings won’t be known until early April, but the head of Sochi’s medical research team, Lars Engebretsen, says at this stage it looks like the overall number is no different than in previous Games.
Head, neck injuries a concern
But Engebretsen notes that the new sports – slopestyle, freestyle and snowboard cross – show an increase in knee injuries.
At the last Winter Games in Vancouver, more than one out of 10 athletes were injured during the games, and seven per cent came down with an illness.
Competitions with the highest rates of injuries were bobsleigh, ice hockey, short track, alpine, freestyle and snowboard cross – where the rate ranged from 15 to 35 per cent of participants.
Hockey is particularly high for injuries, though that’s in part because it’s a team sport. Canada’s John Tavares pulled out of the men’s hockey tournament Thursday after he was checked into the boards, suffering a torn MCL and torn meniscus in his knee. The New York Islanders captain will miss the remainder of the NHL season.
Sports with the least risk included nordic skiing, luge, curling, speed skating and freestyle moguls.
A major concern coming out of the 2010 Vancouver Games was that every fifth injury involved the head, neck and cervical spine.
Injury counts came from tallies by each countries’ head physicians and area medical clinics.
Researchers note that it’s likely the number is much higher since some athletes refuse to report injuries for competitive reasons.
Competing with injuries
As many athletes and officials are quick to state that injuries are just part of competing, particularly in the extreme sports.
Many athletes go into the Games with injuries that they fight to keep under control or power through on the big day.
Simmerling, who crashed during semi-finals, has suffered a slew of injuries during her athletic career. In early 2012, she broke her back and neck during competition.
Years earlier, she accidentally skied off a cliff in Chile, fracturing her jaw and breaking multiple teeth. Another fall caused her to bite her tongue three-quarters off, requiring 50 stitches. She’s also suffered more typical injuries, including a concussion and MCL damage in both knees.
Star snowboarder Mark McMorris fractured a rib at the X Games just two weeks before competing in Sochi. He managed the injury well enough to win Canada's first medal of the Games with a bronze in slopestyle.
After winning silver on Friday, Canada’s Serwa acknowledged that she went into the competition struggling to recover after rupturing her ACL in 2012 and tearing it the year after.
”I’m still dealing with my knee now,” said Serwa, who’s been working with a sports psychologist. “Coming back from any injury, it’s as much a mental battle as a physical battle.”
(With files from the Olympic News Service and the Associated Press)