World Cup Skiing Searches for Answers to Its Injury Problem

CRANS-MONTANA, Switzerland — Elisabeth Reisinger of Austria fought to carve her skis around a sweeping, right-footed turn coming off a jump on the Mont Lachaux downhill course. Jolted by a compression in the snow, she was tossed backward and lost control. She crashed hard, sliding headfirst into two panels of safety netting lining the racecourse. Sitting up, she screamed, waving for help.

Reisinger, 23, was attended to by an on-course doctor who arrived about 60 seconds after the crash. She was airlifted off the mountain and treated at a nearby hospital for a bruised tibia and an anterior cruciate ligament tear.

The knee injury, which occurred last month and ended her season, was another in an alarming series of them on the World Cup ski tour this season. It is an issue the sport is looking to confront, even as it waits to see if the remainder of this season — which was scheduled to end with the World Cup finals in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, later this month — will be canceled in reaction to the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is, unfortunately, the standard injury that we have in our sport,” Peter Gerdol, the World Cup women’s race director, said of knee injuries like Reisinger’s. “I always have a bad feeling when this happens, but it’s something, unfortunately, we cannot avoid. It’s part of the sport.”

Ilka Stuhec, a two-time world downhill champion from Slovenia, said the fiercely competitive nature of the 100-year-old adrenaline sport is a reason for its high number of crashes and injuries.

“If you want to win, you have to go really close to the thin line between really comfortable, nice skiing and really attacking and losing control,” Stuhec said. “When you try to push, mistakes happen, and sometimes you can’t handle it.”

While athletes taking risks at speeds reaching about 87 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour) is one reason for injuries, there are others: the advent of highly shaped, shorter and wider skis that increase power and tension on knees; the grueling race schedule from late October to mid-March; and the burden of preparing safe courses in fickle weather.

Unfavorable weather and poor snow surfaces have canceled races this season in Russia, Italy, France and Japan and an upcoming women’s event in Germany. Race directors, at times, have lowered starts of downhill races to salvage competitions.

“Some races are pretty bad with the changing snow, then it’s icy, then you have grip and then you don’t have grip, then it all snowballs,” Stuhec said.

Top racers who have been injured this season include Sofia Goggia, an Italian who won gold in the downhill at the 2018 Olympics, and Viktoria Rebensburg of Germany. They both suffered season-ending injuries at a super-G race in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, last month. Goggia broke her left arm after falling and smacking a gate; Rebensburg injured a knee just 24 hours after winning a downhill race.

“It’s an adrenaline sport, and there are a lot of races,” said Ester Ledecka, an Olympic medalist in skiing and snowboarding for the Czech Republic. “You have to keep going, keep going, and when you’re tired and you have trainings and races, then you are on the limit sometimes.”

On the men’s side, Dominik Paris, a 14-time World Cup downhill winner from Italy, tore an A.C.L. while training in January. Adrien Théaux of France suffered a similar fate, also from a training crash. Thomas Dressen of Germany dislocated both shoulders after a fall at an Austrian race on Saturday.

This season, about 20 men and 30 women have been sidelined by injuries in ski races, more than half of which were a torn A.C.L. or another knee injury.

In an attempt to evaluate and limit injuries, F.I.S., the global skiing federation, recently announced a working group of sports and medical experts. The group is a part of the F.I.S. Injury Surveillance and Prevention Project, in cooperation with the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Center, started in 2006.

“We have an ongoing problem, and we all have to be honest that this group will also not find a golden answer that will solve all the problems,” said Atle Skaardal of Norway, a former World Cup women’s race director who now works on the injury surveillance project.

“The most important part is to go into the hot spots of the injury reasons and then take it from that side,” Skaardal said. “We want to go in with open eyes, check everything and do systematic methodology investigations and approaches to the problems.”

Statistical evidence provided by F.I.S.’s Injury Surveillance System shows that injuries, time-loss injuries and severe injuries all increased last season after having decreased over previous seasons. Time-loss injuries were in the range of 30 racers based on a sample of 100 athletes. There are more than 300 ski racers on tour.

“To achieve zero tolerance with injuries is very difficult,” Skaardal said. “It’s like asking to prevent serious accidents in traffic.”

The parallel giant slalom format — in which skiers race side-by-side on courses intended to be equal — has produced significant knee injuries. Alexis Pinturault, a ski racer from France, tweeted his disapproval, calling for F.I.S. to make changes.

His post read, in part: “Since when in sport luck is more important than performance? And how dangerous is the format. But above all @fisalpine when will the words of the athletes be taken into account?”

Breezy Johnson, a racer from the United States, said there needed to be greater cooperation among nations.

“I hope that one day we can get to a place where the Germans, the U.S. and everybody can share medical information, so we can rehab as well as we possibly can to get people back quickly and safely and so they don’t get reinjured,” Johnson said.

Tina Weirather, 30, of Liechtenstein, said F.I.S. should do more to prevent injuries. She proposed modifications to racing suits to limit speeds and prevent long slides after falls. She said F.I.S. officials and some racers, including Lindsey Vonn and Maria Hoefl-Riesch, rejected the idea.

“I tried, but they’re not listening,” Weirather said. “They don’t want to change anything. There is a lot of politics and not a lot of constructive thinking. That’s the problem, generally in F.I.S. You have these groups of interest, and the priority is not the sport.”

Gerdol said he was “quite positive” that solutions could be found and injuries curtailed.

“It’s mainly up to the experts, the doctors in this case, that can help us, and as soon as we get some response, then we can act, changing rules or doing whatever to limit the injuries,” he said. “The priority for us is to have safe races all of the time.”




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