THE SPORTS DOCTOR- Rough stuff: Danger a hallmark of Winter Olympics

How pile-ups can happen.FLICKR/JEFFCAPESHOP

Were you watching when the first round of luge competition aired last Saturday night? While the figures haven't come out yet, I'd be willing to bet Saturday's was the most-watched luge competition in the history of the Winter Olympics.

After the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during a practice run on Friday, who didn't want to know what would happen at the Whistler Sliding Center?

That's the irony. The Games that scores of people declare nothing but a bore encompass some of the world's most dangerous sports— and let's face it: mayhem is usually part of a sport's appeal. Whether it's NASCAR crashes, football concussions, or MMA brutality, danger and its threat are often what people say make a sport great. 

So it's a mystery why the Winter Olympics and its athletes are so often dismissed.

People plaster themselves to sleds on razor-sharp runners to hurl themselves down tracks at 90 miles an hour. Supine, by the way: on their backs, feet first, using only calf muscles and shoulders to steer– not to mention lifting their heads the entire time to keep from flying off 60-degree-banked turns. That's the luge.

What about speed skating? Ask this year's short-track bronze medal winner, J. R. Celski. At the Olympic qualifiers in Michigan five months ago, the farthest thing from Celski's mind was a medal after he crashed during the last race, his left skate blade embedded in his right thigh, a seven-inch gash in his leg, his quad muscle punctured to the bone.

"It was one inch away from his femoral artery," Celski's mother said. "Another inch, and he probably would have bled to death on the ice." 

As horrible as that is, consider Jessica Dube, a Canadian figure skater who in 2007 was hit in the face by her partner's skate. Eighty stitches later, Dube and Bryce Davison are Canada's top pairs team in Vancouver.

Winter sports don't have to be blade-based to be dizzyingly dangerous (although what sport other than figure skating has an element called the "death spiral"?). 

According to the New York Times, "Snowboard cross and its cousin, ski cross– the only new medal sport added for these Olympics– are likely the most dangerous sports at the Winter Games." 

What exactly are snowboard and ski cross, and why are they so dangerous? A mainstay of the X-Games, in snowboard cross (the "NASCAR of the Olympics"), a group of snowboarders race on an inclined slope to see who crosses the line first. 

What's so dangerous about that? The track, for starters: berms, drops, steeps, and gap jumps– all part of a narrow course. Then there's the fact that four racers are competing on the same run– at the same time!

Just weeks after competing in 2006 at Turin, the Olympic debut for snowboard cross, Sweden's Jonatan Johansson died of internal injuries following a hard landing on a World Cup course. And that was just 18 months after Norway's Line Ostvold died of a head injury after a spill on a World Cup course in Chile.

Ski cross is no safer. The course for this new Olympic sport has moguls, jumps, turns— all tackled at almost terrifying speed. 

"You want crashes?" asked sportswriter Alan Abrahamson on his blog. "You like a sport where the winner might well be the last one standing?" Try ski cross.

Whatever the Winter Olympics may be, their danger definitely should prevent people from dissing them. Maybe after Kumaritashvili's terrible death this year the naysayers will start taking the games more seriously. And if you watch snowboard cross, keep a lookout for Norwegian Stian Sivertzen. Last year, Sivertzen crashed on the very course used in Vancouver, fracturing his collarbone, pelvis, and lower back, tearing his aorta, and ultimately falling into a coma. 

Don't worry, though. He came out of it in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.


Juanita Giles lives in Keysville where she makes videos and updates her Sports Doctor site.