Having recently watched the well-acclaimed documentary of the late Formula One icon Ayrton Senna, it became obvious that safety precautions – although often cynically blanketed as ‘Health and Safety’ – are an overlooked feature of sport as we know it today.
As the desire to win becomes even greater and the scales tip against safety and in the favour of victory, it is inevitable that there will be an ever-increasing amount of serious injuries and fatalities. As far as I can see the only way to be truly satisfied with the level of safety at any event is to rule out any ‘preventable’ injuries. The overriding issue here however, is to what extent does safety detract from the excitement of the spectators and participants, in each sport?
In time for the start of 2012/13 season the FIS (International Ski Federation) have introduced new guidelines on the minimum radius for skis, the most extreme of which is in the Giant Slalom. The smallest radius allowed will be 40m – This is 13 m larger than the current limit of 27m. To put this into perspective, the skis will resemble the ones worn by racers over 20 years ago, an undeniable regression for a sport that has previously been won by those linking the cleaner, rounder turns.
The Chairman of the FIS Athletes Commission, Kilian Albrecht, has criticised the unnecessarily hurried manner in which the seemingly arbitrary guidelines were set. There were of course safety tests conducted (at the University of Salzburg), where various ski dimensions were tested in order to ascertain the amount of stress put on skiers’ joints at various speeds. This would all be fine except for the lack of transparency – there has been no publication of the results of the preceding safety tests, and thus no external scrutiny.
Athletes are unhappy about this with over two-thirds of the top 100 male and female slalom and grand slalom specialists signing a petition protesting the FIS ski limits.
Why the unrest? After Warner Nickerson and GS World Champion Ted Ligety tested the new, straighter skis in Chile, both were said to be complaining about the difficulty to get the ski to come round when skiing the more modern, rounder lines through the gate. Slipping turns, and stepping up the hill when traversing, are skills normally reserved for beginners, not pros. As well as this it seems that in order to combat the difficulty of turning, the lines skied will be more traditional straighter, speedier lines which negates the argument that straighter skis will slow the racers down.
Interestingly, the other ski racing safety factors are numerous, yet not deemed sufficient to maintain the safety of competitors. Something that confuses Ligety on one of his recent blog posts: “I’m all for safety and taking the precautionary measures to avoid needless risks. But when I ask myself if GS is “super” dangerous in the relative sense of things, the answer is NO. In the last two years, there has been a grand total of three injuries among the skiers of the GS elite (ranked in the Top 30); and I wouldn’t contribute any of the causes of these injuries to the equipment.”
The other factors listed my Mr. Albrecht in a recent presentation include less aerodynamic suits and constant consultation with athletes. Ligety thinks that these have indeed done the job, and his statistics speak for themselves.
Do the FIA not recognize this as well? The Economist points to conspiracy theories: “Four manufacturers made ski prototypes: Rossignol, Fischer, Head and Atomic. Atomic collaborates on ski research at the University of Salzburg, (where the FIS study was conducted) which raises doubts about the independence of the study.” Personally, I don’t believe it. I can’t see the long-term benefits of cozying up to industry leaders, especially while sporting corruption is such a hot topic.
If the introduction of equipment guidelines and subsequent ski racing regression does not significantly reduce injuries, it has the potential to be a PR disaster. Let’s just hope that the right decision is made by 2012.