A British skier crashes through a wooden fence at a downhill corner and collides with a pole, breaking his leg. An American hits an icy patch at the bottom of a hill and crashes into a fence, breaking one ski and rolling the other, also breaking his leg.
Another American, training before a biathlon race, slides onto an icy corner and flies off the trail into a tree, breaking ribs and a shoulder blade and puncturing a lung.
These were not the scene of a high speed alpine or ski cross event. They took place on cross country ski and biathlon tracks made of artificial snow.
Many top Nordic skiers and biathletes say such accidents are becoming more common as climate change reduces the availability of natural snow, forcing racers to compete on the track with a man-made version. Organizers of Olympic and World Cup races have begun to rely on snow-making equipment to create a ribbon of white running through the hills because natural snowfall is less reliable.
Estonian Olympic biathlete Johanna Taliharm said running on man-made ice comes with risks.
“Artificial snow is icy, so faster and more dangerous,” she said. “It hurts even more if you fall out of the way when there is no fluffy snowbank but a rocky and muddy hard ground.”
Skiers and experts say that man-made snow has a high moisture content, which makes it snow quickly.
Chris Grover, US Ski’s head cross country coach, said, “It can be really hard rock out there and falling can feel like falling onto concrete, and so that makes it a little more dangerous than natural snow conditions.” ” Team.
Some places even make ice and then store it under wood chips in summer and spread it around a track when it cools. Artificial snow, welcome as it is, doesn’t get better with age. Race organizers should take this into account when designing courses, say skiers and experts.
“It is very universally recognized that the courses are stronger and faster than before,” said Gus Schumacher, a member of the US cross country team. While racing in France, “there have been some accidents where people slipped on icy corners because that snow is too unforgiving. Like, it’s really sharp crystals that don’t bond well together.”
John Elberg, a former Olympic cross country skier who designs Olympic Nordic ski courses, including the Beijing Games, said he always considers snowy conditions when designing a course. He said a major safety issue was the change in race formats from individual starts to mass start races.
“When you ski one by one like they did in the ’90s, you could have slopes and corners because they came one at a time,” he said. “The important thing from a safety point of view is that the corners of the slope are not too tight in terms of width.”
Unlike alpine equipment, cross county skis do not have metal sides. They are designed to be thin and light for climbing hills and gliding on flats. The shoes are flexible and attach to the skis with a metal bar under the toe. Nordic skiers do not use the side of the ski to navigate around a corner. Instead, they take rapid baby steps to go around the curve.
All this is more difficult on man-made ice.
“We go very fast on the downhills,” said Olympic gold medalist and member of the US Nordic Ski Team, Jesse Diggins. “I’ve driven up to 76 kph (47 mph) on downhills on man-made ice and it’s scary because most of our race trails are built for natural snow, which is a little softer. The edge is a little more padding where you have snowbanks, not just drop-offs.”
“I think it’s getting a little bit more dangerous and I’ve seen in the World Cup when it’s man-made snow, it’s scary because instead of sliding on the ice you’re sliding on the ice,” said Diggins, who is the overall world champion. Was the Cup winner for the 2020-21 season. “I think we’re seeing a higher percentage of declines. I think it’s a little more dangerous now.”
The International Ski Federation, which oversees ski racing around the world, tracks injuries going back to 2006. The FIS monitoring system was created to “monitor injury patterns and trends in different FIS subjects” and “to provide background data for in-patients”. A thorough study of the causes of injuries.”
The report tracks alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and ski jumping. But there is no data on injuries in Nordic events, which include cross country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined.
When asked by the Associated Press whether the organization keeps track of accidents in cross country ski and biathlon races, an FIS spokesperson said: “We track injuries during our races, but we do not make our research public at this time. Huh.”
When asked about concerns about man-made ice, the FIS did not respond. Finnish cross country skier and co-chair of the Athletes’ Commission at the FIS Council, Marti Zilha, did not return a message.
There are other factors at play.
John Morton, a two-time Olympic biathlete, a certified FIS course inspector, and founder of Morton Trails, a Vermont company that designs ski trails, said there are international standards for Nordic ski races. He recalled attending a conference where he discussed the banking diversion on rapid downhills, but this was opposed by some European officials, who said it would be too easy.
“It’s a constant drive to make it more exciting and more dramatic,” he said. “It’s very clear that they want challenging courses, they want to push athletes to the limit.”
He said that consideration should be given in this context.
“We have to recognize that the way they were designed and designed and built for natural snow may now have to be modified because everything is faster – the skis are faster, the wax is faster,” he said.
Jim Steinberg, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah, said “man-made ice” is actually not ice at all. “It is water that is blown through a nozzle that breaks the water into very small and tiny droplets that then freeze. Whereas the composition of natural ice is fundamentally different.”
Man-made snow has a higher water content, so it has a higher density and is really durable, making it good for ski racing, at least for alpine ski racing, he said.
“For alpine skiing events, natural snow can actually be a hindrance because racers prefer a hard, icy surface,” he said. “If a storm precedes an alpine skiing event, the natural snow is usually removed from the course. Nordic skiing, however, is different.”
British skier Andrew Young was on the fourth lap of the 15-kilometer Mass Start cross-country ski race in Sweden in January when he crashed downhill and ran over a fence, breaking his leg. He was rushed to hospital and struggled to recover for six weeks, ending his hopes for the 2021 World Championships.
Young said climate change has “definitely changed” cross country skiing, but it’s not the only reason the sport is more dangerous.
Racecourses are smaller partly due to limited snow, but for spectators and television cameras to bring skiers to the field more often. As Young put it: “Shorter loops means more corners, which means more crashes.”
According to the center’s general manager, Luke Bodensteiner, there was approximately 17 kilometers (10.5 mi) of route for racing at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center in Utah during the 2002 Winter Olympics. But the shorter loops used for racing these days mean they only need 11 or 12 kilometers (6.8 or 7.4 mi) for the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games.
He said he prefers to keep the tracks about 1 m (3.2 ft) deep to hold the tracks. But it also means a longer fall when a skier leaves the course.
“The problem I see is when there is no natural snow and there is just a ribbon of artificial snow lining the race course,” Young said. “If something happens and someone crashes, the consequences of getting off track are actually quite dire.”
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