In an alternate universe, hurtling yourself down a snowy slope doesn’t really sound safe. Except, in the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, doing so on a pair of skis or flying midair to land on snow (and maybe even ice) are athletic feats that result in medals and glory. On Monday night, 17-year-old phenom Chloe Kim clinched gold in the halfpipe; her male counterpart, Shaun White, blew away his competition with the top scores in the men’s halfpipe.
These snowboarders are flipping and racing in snow—actions that automatically require the “don’t try this at home” warning. But Craig Young, a 20-year team physician with the U.S. Olympic skiing and halfpipe teams, says that while injuries haven’t increased, the potential for injuries certainly has, especially since the snowboarding's introduction in the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano.
“The competitive snowboarders have become more sophisticated in tricks and maneuvers,” Young, a professor of orthopaedic surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said. “There’s definitely an increased risk of getting more injuries.”
He’s just returned from Japan, where the snowboarding teams were training prior to Pyeongchang. Young is an expert in snowboarding biomechanics and has had a firsthand seat at the sport’s fast evolution—in 1999, Young published one of the first papers in American Family Physician on snowboarding injuries, titled, well, “Snowboarding Injuries.”
Young and his co-author, Mark W. Niedfeldt, found that snowboarding injuries primarily occurred in the lower extremities during the earlier days of the sport, but that as of 1999, fewer than one-third of snowboarding injuries are in legs and ankles—a finding echoed by Paul McAlpine at The University of Auckland, who analyzed ankle injuries from snowboard injuries.
Instead, Young said, the risk of injury in snowboarding is primarily in the fragile head area.
Young said that two things have amped up the riskiness of the sport. One is the increased difficulty in tricks. “In the 1990s, [competitors] weren’t even doing 720s,” he told The Daily Beast, referring to the double aerial rotation move. They keep pushing up the rotation a half at a time. They wouldn’t even have conceived of doing a 1080 back then!” Now, the 1080 is not only gold medalist Kim’s signature move, but also part of her gold medal winning victory lap, where she casually did a couple of back-to-back 1080s to seal the deal. White takes it further with the Double McTwist, spinning another half turn for a 1260 degree spin that he debuted at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver but which is now practiced by others in the community.
Despite the increasing rotations, Young said that the overall incidence of injuries within the community remains fairly flat. Observers of the sport will note that White’s performance at these Games was not even guaranteed, after a gruesome injury from his snowboard hitting the lip of a course in New Zealand in September, requiring 62 stitches.
White’s case, in fact, is illustrative of the second reason why Young says the risk of injuries has spiked. “When I first started back in the ‘90s, people were not jumping very high out of the halfpipe,” he recalled. “Now they’re getting an incredible amount of air. If you fall and miss the landing, you’re more likely to get catastrophic serious injuries, like head and neck injuries.”
While technique, equipment, and training have improved the aerodynamics of boarders’ flying abilities, Young credits the increased risk of snowboarding injury to “pushing the envelope more.” White earned his stripes as the “Flying Tomato,” and Kim was touted as a gold medal favorite thanks to her ability to do 1080s effortlessly. The rotations mean picking up more gravity which means gravity might not be so kind when athletes come down on the lip of course instead of the slope.
“The thing about snowboarding crashes is that they look really scary,” Young said, referring to when snowboarders take a tumble within the course. “But as long as they’re hitting the wall, it’s actually not as bad as you might think. They’re hitting and sliding down and losing speed [because of gravity]. They look spectacular but they’re not that bad.”
Unless, of course, the snowboarder hits the lip, or edge, of the course. “When you miss the landing and hit the lip, it’s boom,” he noted. “If you jump, say, 10 feet above the lip, you’ve got 10 feet of momentum stopping at once. When you’re sliding downward, you’re gradually bleeding [speed and velocity due to gravity], so you’ll bleed speed as you fall down.”
Deborah King, an exercise and sports physiologist at Ithaca College who has studied the biomechanics of ice skating, agreed. While ice skating's jumps mean that a skater is landing on ice with five to eight times the force of their weight, snowboarders are landing on snow and at a slope.
"They've got to launch in the air and do rotations to land," King pointed out about snowboarders. There's a lot of physics going on in that moment when a snowboarder flings themselves in the air, but they have gravity to help them get height, unlike skaters, who have to propel themselves into the air with their own weight and velocity. So while snowboarders are able to fly higher into the air, the pressure they're using to lift themselves up is significantly less than their skating counterparts.
And when snowboarders are landing back on the ground, they're landing on a snowy slope, which is a lot gentler on the knees than coming down full force on ice. "They [snowboarders] land on a slope, and they're moving," King said. "It's a more gradual impact, and the landing area direction slopes downwards, so it's not as abrupt an impact."
Weirdly, this makes snowboarding a much gentler sport on joints than ice skating.
That's not to say snowboarding is an easy thing and something people seeking gentler-on-the-joints sort of activities should consider: Snowboarding is a sport that is incredibly athletic and almost guarantees bumps and bruises, particularly for first timers who aren't as skilled in landing on their feet when they're coming down or falling safely. Young noted as much in his paper, and says the fact continues to ring true today, saying that the pop culture celebration of flips and cool factor make recreational snowboarders more enticed to copy these dangerous moves without the right training and equipment, making the sport actually more risky for casual snowboarders. “The general public is trying to emulate them,” Young said of the copycat element.
A minor wrinkle that also spikes up the chance of injury is weather. As commentators have noticed, the slopes in Pyeongchang’s slopes are not only different from its predecessors in Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, and Sochi, but they’re also icier too, thanks to record low temperatures. Smooth surfaces mean that while it's slick enough for advanced moves like Kim's 1080 or White's 1260, it could also lead to crashes and tumbles that could lead to injuries, even for the most experienced Olympic athletes. And in the pressure to perform and pull off impressive aerial moves, athletes might risk it all for a chance to medal.
Thus far, in Pyeongchang, the slopes have been relatively peaceful—but don’t let the picturesque slopes fool you, they’re dangerous. Weather reports suggest that winds are icing over slopes, making them slick to the point of danger. They took out Australia’s Tess Coady, who posted on Instagram that she was forced to sit out due to a tear in her knee from practice on Sunday. “I don’t think anyone can say for sure [high winds] caused this accident, but I think it certainly needs to be reviewed,” Australia’s chef de mission, Ian Chesterman, told Reuters. Multiple skiing events have been rescheduled due to the wind.
But Young maintained that weather’s role in injuries is a lot smaller than difficulty of tricks. “The competitors are just doing harder stuff,” he said. “The harder you’re doing things, the more likely you are to crash.”