Like many of you, I’ve been enjoying watching the Winter Olympics from Sochi since they began last Friday. Unfortunately, these games have been mired by everything from Russia’s anti-gay politics and lax online security, to the poor condition of the specially-constructed buildings. (Already, USA bobsledder Johnny Quinn has found himself trapped in a bathroom and elevator at the Olympic Village.)
But there is one concern about these games which has not received as much attention as it should have. I’m talking about the freestyle snowboarding competition which makes its Olympic debut at Sochi. The fact that it has already earned itself the nickname of the “concussion competition” should tell you something.
But first, a brief history lesson: when halfpipes were first introduced in the 80s, they were only three or four feet high. Today, the competition standard established by the International Olympic Committee in 2010 is 22-feet tall – and many elite athletes launch themselves 20 feet or more above the lip. Such maneuvers are undeniably awesome to witness – but when things go wrong, there is a huge potential for serious injuries to occur.
Unfortunately, despite studies and concerns brought by outsiders, coaches and officials within the sports are reluctant to make any changes which would improve competitor’s safety. When top freeskier Kristi Leskinen surveyed 90 slopestyle skiers and snowboarders and found that female athletes were 3.5 times more likely than men to injure themselves, her appeal to reduce the size of the jumps in slopestyle events fell on death years. She was basically told that if women want smaller jumps, they would get less pay and less exposure.
So for now, a number of winter sports remain dangerous. It is up to the individual athletes themselves to decide whether or not the risks are worth taking. USA snowboarder Shaun White has already ruled himself out of the slopestyle competition in Sochi within the past few days, citing the course as too dangerous. Meanwhile, Finnish snowboarder Marika Enne suffered a concussion on the notorious slopestyle course.
As a Dallas-Fort Worth personal injury lawyer, I know that concussions are extremely serious injuries. Despite commonly regarded as “minor” they are actually categorized as a type of traumatic brain injury, and new studies continue to reveal that they are actually a lot more serious than previously believed. Of particular concern is the potential for serious injuries to occur as a result of multiple concussions suffered over an extended period of time. A professional snowboarder, hockey player, boxer or football player can suffered multiple concussions over many years – the damage compounding with each subsequent injury.
Shaun White estimates that he has already suffered nine concussions since he began competing at the age of six. Fellow USA snowboarder Scotty Lago believes he has suffered six or seven, and Gretchen Bleiler has had four or five. Snowmobile racer Caleb Moore (who died as the result of an injury sustained at the X Games in Aspen last month) is understood to have sustained at least 11 major concussions prior to the accident which ultimately killed him.
The point is that while the NFL rightly gets a bad rap because of the high risk of serious brain injuries, there are many other sports which pose similar risks to competitors. No doubt a large contributor to this is the fact that over the past few decades, there has been a major focus on athletes pushing themselves to go faster, bigger, more extreme. Yes, it has made sports more exciting for spectators, but there as to come a point where the risks faced by professional athletes are simply too great. I think we might be there.