Tempting fate at the Winter Games
(This article was originally published by the New York Times on Wednesday, Feb. 10)
Every winter's day, or so it seemed, brought a fresh report of an Olympic medal hopeful knocked out of contention for the Vancouver Games. From skiers to bobsledders, snowboarders to skaters, a startling number of athletes became part of an agony-of-defeat montage of injuries.
On paper, a pretty good Winter Olympics could be held with all the athletes who are too hurt to make this year's Games. On television, the drama has never been higher. Even among those who have navigated the slippery slopes, their bodies and Olympic hopes relatively intact, a heightened sense of danger has found an unexpected home in the back of the mind.
The most telling admission, perhaps, came last month at the bottom of the halfpipe in Park City, Utah, a few weeks after the snowboarder Kevin Pearce was airlifted from there after sustaining a traumatic brain injury while working on the double cork, the event's latest daredevil stunt.
Shaun White, the gold medal favorite whom Pearce had hoped to beat, was excitedly detailing "the run of my life," which featured back-to-back double corks (two back flips and three twists) and a similarly gyroscopic double McTwist 1260, the first time he had landed the latter trick in competition.
"I was scared," White said. "I've never admitted that. I was scared to do this trick."
A week later, while practicing the trick, White landed face-first against the edge of a 22-foot halfpipe. His head snapped back and his helmet flew off, but he somehow averted serious injury.
The replay was shown again and again. There were even replays of White watching the replay, wincing, then laughing in relief.
Like the rest of us, he wanted to watch. There is compelling television, even in - especially in - those kind of moments.
The Vancouver Olympics, which open Friday, should be full of them. The Olympic motto of "swifter, higher, stronger" may be adjusted for the times: "Too swift, too high, too strong?"
For two decades, to broaden the Games' appeal to risk-loving younger generations, the International Olympic Committee has updated what was, in hindsight, a rather sedate winter sports festival. The deciding factor in more than doubling the number of medal events (from 39 in 1984 to 86 this year) seemed to be a combination of speed, air and the risk of a human pileup - or, at minimum, two of the three.
So along came freestyle skiing (aerials, moguls and, this year, skier cross), short-track speedskating, snowboarding (halfpipe, parallel giant slalom and snowboard cross) and the headfirst sledding event of skeleton (resurrected in 2002 after a long absence).
Combine those with existing events like Alpine skiing (boosted by the inclusion of the speed event super-G in 1988), bobsled, luge and ski jumping, and today's Winter Olympics are predicated increasingly on danger. (Curling, added in 1998, appears to be a counterweight to all the infused chaos.)
Have the Olympics ever arrived amid so much blood and bruising? Athletes pushed themselves to the limit. What is different is how many tumbled painfully past it.
A host of champion skiers - Nicole Hosp, Jean-Baptiste Grange and John Kucera among them - are out. The three-time Olympic bobsledder Todd Hays retired after a December crash caused bleeding on his brain.
The 2006 Olympic snowboard cross gold medalist Tanja Frieden announced her retirement while sitting in a wheelchair last month after rupturing her Achilles' tendons in a fall.
The three-time speedskating gold medalist Marianne Timmer failed to qualify after injuring her foot in a high-speed tumble.
Even many who managed to reach Vancouver did so by overcoming serious injuries, perhaps none more horrific than the short-track speedskater J. R. Celski. He needed 60 stitches after filleting his thigh with his 44-centimeter skate blade during a blood-spilling fall at the United States team trials in September. ("It would have been more," Celski said of the stitches, "but they couldn't stitch together the muscle tissue.")
Safety is no more assured in Vancouver than it was on the way there. American bobsledders have called Curve 13 of the Olympic track "50-50," for the chances of making it through without a wreck. The track was so surprisingly fast when it opened (a luger went a record 153.937 kilometers per hour - 95.65 m.p.h., or about 6 m.p.h. faster than ever before - during last year's test event) that Josef Fendt, the president of the international luge federation, said, "It makes me worry."
The only event added for the 2010 Games was skier cross, in which athletes race down a man-made course of dips and jumps while trying to avoid one another. It seems perfectly made for television, and for hospitalization. Its cousin, snowboard cross, made its debut in 2006, sandwiched between deaths of riders at World Cup events - one in September 2004, the other a couple of weeks after the 2006 Games.
"When something like that happens, it's sobering," said the American Nate Holland, a medal favorite in Vancouver. "You think, like, wow, this is really, really dangerous."
Before Friday's luge crash, there had been no athlete deaths during official Winter Olympics competition, according to the Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. (There have been two deaths in the Summer Games, he said: a marathon runner in 1912 and a cyclist in 1960.)
The 1964 Innsbruck Games opened in the aftermath of two training deaths there, of the Austrian skier Ross Milne and a British luger, Kazimierz Kay-Skrzypecki. At the 1988 Calgary Games, the Austrian team doctor Jorg Oberhammer was killed when he fell under the tracks of a snow-grooming machine. In 1992 in Albertville, France, Nicholas Bochatay of Switzerland, training for the demonstration sport of speed skiing, crashed into a snow-grooming machine on a public trail and died.
In some ways, these Games would seem safer than ever. Alpine skiing has surrounded its courses with safety barriers. Ten of the 15 sports require helmets. Speedskaters have not competed outdoors since the 1992 Games and wear suits stitched with Kevlar to protect certain areas of the body (but not the front of the thigh).
But safety will struggle to keep up with advances that propel ever-stronger athletes higher and faster. Speedskaters, using clap skates on perfectly slick surfaces, are speedier than ever. Luge, skeleton and bobsled technology has made sleds faster, and ever-faster tracks boost speed further. The Olympic ski courses have been made almost entirely of man-made snow since 1988 and are injected with water to create superslick, ultrahard ice that can withstand weather and competition.
"It's not ski racing anymore," the two-time World Cup overall champion Lindsey Vonn said of sliding off a slalom course earlier this season in Aspen, Colo. She likened the conditions to "pond ice," and others expressed similar concern as racer after racer fell this season, sometimes right out of the Olympics.
After Pearce's accident in snowboarding's halfpipe (he was moved last week to a brain-rehabilitation hospital in Colorado) and a succession of other head injuries (Australia's Torah Bright, a medal favorite, sustained two concussions within a week in late January), some have called for limits on tricks.
Such restraint is unlikely. Snowboarding is considered one of the great success stories of the Winter Games over the last 20 years, and the halfpipe has become a prime-time glamour event, in large part because of its wow factor.
"You can imagine yourself doing a rough approximation of most sports that the athletes at the Summer Olympics are doing," said David Neal, NBC's vice president for Olympics coverage. "In winter, I think the vast majority of television viewers look at these sports as something that are so difficult, so daunting, that it's an opportunity to sort of live through those remarkable athletes through those sports, which are sports that are competed on the edge."
It was when he lost an edge that Celski, the short-track speedskater, slid into the padding surrounding the rink and sliced his leg to the bone with his 1.1-millimeter-thick skate blade.
"I'm happy to be alive, actually," he said last month.
Celski will compete in three events - all but the 500 meters, which he led on the final lap at the trials when he went down. He will fling himself in counterclockwise ovals at up to 35 m.p.h., leaning so far on corners that his hand will touch the ice, all while trying to avoid getting tangled with a crowd of competitors.
His body is healed, but the back of his mind holds a memory that he tries to ignore. Such an accident will make even a hardened competitor nervous to get back on skates.
"At first, yeah, I was," Celski said. "Actually, I still am. I'll have flashbacks. I fell a couple times since I've been back. It just brings me back to that moment. But nothing I can't handle, I think."
He smiled. He is going to skate. And everyone else is going to watch.
Written by John Branch, New York Times