Equal opportunity has apparently resulted in unequal medical misfortunes at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where women snowboarders and freestyle skiers have suffered an inordinate amount of injuries compared to men.
The New York Times examined the number of crashes at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events, and it showed an eye-opening injury disparity between men and women, citing shared venues as a possible reason.
Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The proportion of injuries to women is greater than it appears given that the men’s fields are generally larger.
Unlike other Winter Olympic sports such as downhill skiing, luge, and ski jumping, in which women compete on shorter, smaller, and/or less-difficult venues than men, male and female snowboarders and freestyle skiers share the same venues for slopestyle, halfpipe, boarder and ski cross, aerials, and moguls.
For instance, the slopestyle course, which iconic snowboarder Shaun White called “intimidating” and withdrew from the competition so as to avoid injury before his marquee halfpipe event, was also used for the women.
The Times reported that Canada’s Kaya Turski, a favorite in ski slopestyle, called the course “a little scary” and “unnecessarily risky,” adding that a lot of the women had never been on a course nearly as large and intimidating. She crashed on both her runs and finished 19th.
“Most of the courses are built for the big show, for the men,” Kim Lamarre, Canadian bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, told the Times. “I think they could do more to make it safer for women.”
J. F. Cusson, ski slopestyle coach for Canada and a former X Games gold medalist, said that his women’s team usually did not practice on jumps as large as the ones the men use, for fear of injury.
“But when they compete, they have to jump on the same jumps, so they get hurt,” he said. “It’s a big concern of mine.”
The worst on the casualty list was Russia’s Maria Komissarova, a ski cross athlete who fractured her spine during training. Others included Heidi Kloser, an American who tore ligaments in her right leg in a moguls training run before Opening Ceremony; South Korea’s Seo Jung-hwa, who suffered a concussion during moguls; Britain’s Rowan Cheshire, who landed on her face and was knocked out in skiing halfpipe training; and American Jackie Hernandez, who sustained a concussion on a qualifying run in snowboard cross.
Snowboarder Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic led slopestyle after her first run but crashed on the second, smacking her head so hard it cracked her helmet nearly in half (see photo at right).
The Times pointed out that the X Games use the same courses for men and women, but the invitation-only event has small fields with the world’s best while the Olympics generate larger fields that have a drastic drop-off in talent between the top athletes and the bottom of the field.
The slopestyle course does offer riders smaller jumps next to the big ones, but inevitably the women will attempt to go big, as Devin Logan of the U.S. prefers.
“We should be able to showcase our sport on the big jumps,” the silver medalist in ski slopestyle told the Times. “We’re all competitive athletes. We all want to stand on the podium. If someone is hitting tricks off the bigger jumps, then you’re going to want to too.”
It’s doubtful anything will change—and perhaps it shouldn’t change—but the discussion has been opened.
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