Speed and danger rise

Falls, injuries are accumulating at the Winter Games

Turin Olympics

February 15, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN REPORTER

TURIN, Italy -- Crash helmets. Safety barriers. Skeleton.

These are your Winter Olympics.

For every sport with grace and beauty, there are two ready to tear an athlete limb from limb and rattle the brain. And even within the pretty sports, such as figure skating, danger lurks.

Just three days into competition, there have been enough mishaps to fill a moderate-size trauma ward. About a dozen athletes have required medical help, with some forced to withdraw from the Games.

Athletes say accidents are a part of their sport every year. The Olympics concentrates all the sports in two weeks and invites up to 2 billion fans to watch on television.

But this has been an unusual spate of mishaps. It's not just rookie Olympians pushing the safety boundaries to try to reach the podium; it's also gold medalists and world champions who have been injured.

What separate the Winter Olympics from the warm-weather version are speed and ice. The fastest Summer Games athlete - a road cyclist - might peak at 40 mph, but downhill skiers reach 80 mph and luge sliders will top out in the mid-80s.

Gravity plus slippery surfaces equal danger.

"Ice is slippery. Anything can happen," Sasha Cohen said last month just before winning the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Not that the athletes would have it any other way.

"It's a rush," said American Tony Benshoof, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark for fastest luge speed, 86.6 mph. "The track curves rise as high as three-story buildings and we're stuck up there like glue, pulling 5 G's."

Because elite athletes and their equipment are so good, they are able to ski aggressively, making accidents catastrophic, said Dr. Bill Howard, a surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital.

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt, downhill skiing is the most dangerous sport in any Olympics," said Howard. "You're going to see a lot of knees torn to pieces, a lot of bad concussions. It's the speed, but it's also that the ski, if it doesn't come off, can act like a lever that really twists the knee."

Tom Erhard, a former U.S. ski coach who now runs Apex Sports Camps, said a skier such as Bode Miller resists as much as 1,800 pounds of pressure every time he turns, "and once you're out of control, to resist those huge forces is nearly impossible."

Television technology has accentuated the speed and explosiveness. NBC, for example, is using a camera at alpine skiing that runs at up to 2,000 frames per second as opposed to the standard 90 frames per second.

"When you can see a close-up of Bode's skis, you can see how violent the vibrations are. It makes his skis look like Jell-O. It's controlled chaos," said NBC spokesman Mike McCarley. "The Winter Olympics have that extra element of speed and danger."

Some of this year's Olympic crashes have looked worse than they were. But others were frightening, perhaps none more than U.S. downhill skier Lindsey Kildow's airborne plunge at 50 mph during a training run Monday.

Kildow spent the night in the hospital for treatment of a badly bruised hip and back; she might race today. Before the crash, she was a medal favorite.

Three other downhill racers also crashed at Olimpica Fraiteve. Canadian Allison Forsyth tore a knee ligament and is out of the competition. Reigning Olympic champion Carole Montillet-Carles of France suffered rib, back and facial injuries after hitting the fencing at the edge of the course. Austrian Elisabeth Goergl took a minor spill.

Stretchers were needed at other venues, too.

The limp form of American Samantha Retrosi sliding without her sled after she slammed into an icy curve horrified spectators at the luge track Monday. Although she lost consciousness and suffered short-term memory loss, doctors say she will be fine.

U.S. snowboard cross athlete Jayson Hale saw his Olympic dream end when he missed his landing on a jump known as "Wu Tang" and tore a ligament in his right knee. The sport - a race among multiple snowboarders - was added to the Winter Games this year to attract a younger audience.

At the other end of the age spectrum is the woman known as "Grandma Luge," Anne Abernathy, the sole member of the U.S. Virgin Islands team and, at 52, the oldest female Winter Olympian.

She crashed Sunday in training and broke her right wrist in the same spot on the track where she crashed a year ago, ending an Olympic career that began in 1988.

Accidents sometimes force officials to alter the field of play to make it safer. In the case of the luge track, the Turin Olympic Organizing Committee shut it down last February after Abernathy and 13 others were injured in one day. The revamped track has gotten high marks from sliders this week.

On the other hand, athletes sometimes prod officials to add thrills to a venue. Such was the case at Olimpica Fraiteve, the site of the women's downhill. After a World Cup race last season, Kildow and several other racers complained that the course resembled a bunny hill, as she told Ski Magazine.

Organizers created a monster, sculpting the terrain to create breathtaking bumps and dips. Kildow caught an edge on one of those dips and spun out of control, flipping into the air and coming down hard on her back.

No one at the U.S. Alpine Program is pointing fingers.

"I think it is an excellent course and it's prepared well," said program director Jesse Hunt. "The conditions were dry and grippy. It's easy to catch an edge."

As for the pretty sports, well, sometimes they resemble full-contact contests.

Zhang Dan of China had to stop skating and collect herself Monday night during the pairs short program after a throw by her partner, Zhang Hao, sent her sprawling across the ice and into the boards.

But by picking herself up and continuing, she was able to grasp something to ease the pain: a silver medal.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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