Above: Russia has faced some strong criticism going into these Olympics, particularly in regards to security and whether the venues will even be ready in time. Is Sochi ready to host the world? Stuart Greer reports.
The Olympics have barely begun, but already athlete injuries are piling up from training runs in Sochi.
As the games get under way, the spotlight’s shifting from Russia’s security measures regarding potential acts of terrorism to very different safety precautions – namely the safety of the actual tracks, courses and other outdoor obstacles that the athletes compete on.
The majority of the initial problems have come from the snowboard slopestyle course. Many athletes have complained, saying the organizers went too far in their attempts to make the first Olympic slopestyle course challenging – to the point where it has become dangerous.
“I think they wanted to make big kickers and it’s not really good for riders. It’s not really safe anymore,” said Finland’s Roope Tonteri after Monday’s practice round. “I just don’t want to get injured.”
The women are finding it especially difficult to conquer the incredibly steep slopes and challenging obstacles on the course.
“For women the big jumps are a little too big,” said Sarka Pancochova of the Czech Republic on Tuesday. “When you have really good jumps like the X Games, even the women have no problem dealing with the big jumps. It’s very hard for them to figure it out.” Pancochova did say however, that the alterations the crews made between Monday and Tuesday’s runs were a step in the right direction.
The first injury occurred during a training run on Monday. Norwegian medal favourite Torstein Horgmo missed his landing off a rail featured on the course, smashing his shoulder and side on the ground. The result was a broken collarbone and the end of Horgmo’s Olympic journey in 2014.
The next incident received the most attention because of the athlete involved – two-time reigning Olympic champion Shaun White. White was scheduled to compete in the slopestyle as well as his signature event, the halfpipe. He was testing out the slopestyle course a day after Horgmo’s crash when he lost balance after a steep jump and jammed his wrist. This came even after crews had come in and made alterations to the course to make it less risky following Horgmo’s terrifying crash.
While his injury wasn’t nearly as serious as Horgmo’s, it’s believed to’ve been a factor in White’s decision later that day to drop out of the slopestyle event and focus solely on the halfpipe.
“With the practice runs I have taken, even after course modifications and watching fellow athletes get hurt, the potential risk of injury is a bit too much for me to gamble my other Olympics goals on,” White said in a statement.
Tuesday’s slopestyle injuries didn’t end there: Merika Enne of Finland crashed during the women’s test runs, suffering a concussion and most likely closing the door on her chances of competing for a medal. Slovenia’s Cilka Sadar, another female snowboarder, was also injured and had to be carried off the course because of a crash Wednesday.
Then the first official women’s downhill skiing training run was postponed by more than an hour on Thursday because of unsafe conditions after the first three skiers said the final jump on the course was way too intense.
The third skier, Italian Daniela Merighetti, injured both her knees during her landing. She was not seriously injured but when she was offered to do her run over again, she refused. She is likely to remain in the Olympic competition. American Laurenne Ross said she felt like the rest of the field’s test dummy, as she was first to go.
“You feel like you’re never going to come down,” Ross said, describing the sensation she felt when getting too much air off the jump.
Ross and Merighetti were in agreement as to the main problem – a lack of skilled forerunners, the amateur athletes who test the course out before the Olympic competitors to make sure it’s safe and acceptable for the pros to compete on.
The forerunners in the women’s downhill event were not nearly as skilled as the competitors, they said, and therefore were not properly qualified to test the track.
“I’m upset they didn’t have more expert forerunners,” Merighetti said after being visibly angry following her run. The competitors were getting to speeds of almost 90 mph – up to 20 mph faster than the forerunners, which caused them to get considerably more air off the jumps.
The event was postponed so the hill could be shaved down to eliminate the risk of skiers flying too high into the air.
The opening ceremony has yet to take place and Sochi is already being criticized for being unprepared. Injuries to some of the world’s top athletes because of course problems and inexperienced forerunners likely won’t help.
In depth: The Sochi Olympics