Olympic injury toll rises as athletes risk limbs at Extreme park

BloombergFebruary 18, 2014 

SOCHI, Russia -- Cameron Bolton was approaching a jump when he clipped Italy's Omar Visintin in the Olympic men's snowboard cross semifinal. The Australian fell on his face before getting hit by another Italian, Luca Matteotti.

"Welcome to boardercross," Nick Baumgartner, a U.S. snowboarder, said during an interview as Bolton was left with a bloody face and a suspected broken wrist. "It's fun to watch, we put on a good show every time. When you're in the air, you do whatever you can to survive. I don't think that's a bad thing at all."

Of the 38 athletes competing in the event at Sochi's Rosa Khutor Extreme Park Tuesday, 13 were disqualified or didn't finish as crashes and falls drew gasps and sharp intakes of breath from spectators. France's Pierre Vaultier won gold while Nikolay Olyunin of Russia beat American Alex Deibold to take silver for the host country.

The final of the snowboard cross, also known as boardercross, was postponed by a day because of dense fog on the hill, but the murky conditions returned during the event's latter stages while freezing rain made the snow slushy and exposed ice.

The injury toll at the Winter Games is rising as bad weather and risk-taking by athletes combine to provide an element of danger that fans crave, yet has some competitors being carried off on stretchers.

In snowboard cross, athletes race in groups of as many as six on terrain featuring cambered turns, gap jumps, drops and flat sections over 1,200 meters (3,937 feet) with a vertical drop of 213 meters.

Among the casualties was Canada's Kevin Hill, 27, who ended up with his face bloodied and his ski goggles broken into four pieces after a fall. Such was the amount of rain on the course it reminded him of water sports.

"Because of the wet conditions, there's a lot of slush, and underneath the slush there's ice, and I hit my face on the ice," Hill said. "I wouldn't mind if I was swimming when I was racing, as long as I get to the bottom. I'm happy to be safe and happy to be going home healthy."

Bolton, who finished 11th, was winded for about 30 seconds during one of his two crashes and was scheduled to see a doctor later Tuesday.

"I'm a little bit worse for wear," the 23-year-old said after the race. "I think my wrist is broken. I got it strapped up and got out there and crashed again. I hit it somewhere in there, but I don't think I hurt it any further in that last crash as I hit my head and rolled around and hit some other things."

The number of athletes injured during Sochi 2014 isn't significantly different to the previous games in Vancouver four years ago, according to Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee.

"Winter sports are not without their risks, but we don't see any difference between this games and the last one," he told reporters Feb. 17. "The ski federation, as I understand, is very happy with the venue."

The IOC, which has added new so-called extreme sports to boost interest in younger audiences, declined to say how many athletes have been injured so far.

Ski-cross racer Maria Komissarova is one of those who've suffered when training at the games' Extreme Park. The Russian broke her spine during a practice run and is being treated in Munich after undergoing surgery in Krasnaya Polyana, the nearest town to the venue.

Canadian skier Yuki Tsubota suffered a mild concussion and a fractured cheekbone in a Feb. 11 crash during the women's slopestyle event, when athletes soar and slide over obstacles before launching themselves off progressively larger jumps. The 20-year-old landed short and was taken off the course on a stretcher. She has returned home to see if she needs surgery.

During the women's snowboard cross event on Feb. 16, Jacqueline Hernandez of the U.S. was carried off after she banged her head, as was Norway's Helene Olafsen with a knee injury.

"This is a great course but it's intimidating," said 21- year-old Faye Gulini of the U.S., who finished fourth. "We don't usually have courses that have jumps this big. These big features scare people but it's fun and that's what we need to separate the field."

Aerial skiing also poses injury risks. The competitors start at a height of 1,075 meters and slide down a ramp at speeds of more than 65 kilometers (40 miles) an hour before launching themselves into the air. They're judged on execution of tricks, height achieved and style, as well as on their landing.

Aerials skier Christopher Lambert of Switzerland was another victim of Extreme Park with a suspected dislocated elbow. Britain's Rowan Cheshire, a skier in the women's halfpipe event, withdrew from the games after being knocked unconscious during training.

"With a concussion injury there needs to be a rest period followed by a graduated return to play phase," the British team's chief medical officer Niall Elliott said in a statement. "The time scale is unfortunately too tight for Rowan."

U.S. snowboarder Baumgartner, 32, says "anything can happen" in such a demanding sports event.

"We're a winter sport so we're not used to doing this very often," he said. "It's crazy. When you hit the ground with your head it's a lot softer in these conditions, maybe it's like a pillow."


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