IOC wants to make slopestyle safer while keeping spirit of the sport
Vail’s Dr. Tom Hackett lobbied IOC, FIS to adopt design standards for slopestyle courses and snowmaking to make sport safer.
Last year the International Olympic Committee’s head medical officer, Dr. Lars Engebretsen, sparked a wildfire among slopestyle athletes when he said the rate of injury among the sport’s high-flying skiers and snowboarders was “too high to be a sport that we have in the Olympics.”
“That sport should change; otherwise we shouldn’t have it,” said Engebretsen, who didn’t offer any injury numbers.
Last month, Dr. Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon at Vail’s renowned Steadman Clinic and a longtime team doctor for the U.S. ski and snowboard teams, traveled to the IOC’s headquarters in Switzerland and presented Engebretsen and the IOC with data showing slopestyle injuries were not as overwhelming as suspected.
“While the severe injuries happen to get everyone’s attention, most of the injuries that occurred were not life-threatening,” Hackett said. “Most of them were knee injuries, which was by far the most common. Then concussions were second.”
Hackett said his numbers, which he gathered from every major North American contest last season except Aspen’s X Games, were “very preliminary.” Canceled events and his lack of access to injuries in qualifying events hindered data collection, he said.
But he feels the data he did have persuaded the IOC and the International Federation of Skiing — or the FIS, skiing and snowboarding’s governing body — not to install limits on athlete acrobatics, as they do for aerials and moguls skiers.
“There was discussion on limiting tricks, but that is not going to happen,” Hackett said. “There was a big push from several of us, myself included, not to put any limitations down on the sport so athletes can self-regulate themselves based on their skill level and weather conditions.”
Hackett said the IOC and FIS recognize the importance of slopestyle events in the Olympics. The IOC last month announced its intention to add a big air snowboard contest to the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. The gathering in Switzerland included a presentation showing the debut of skiing and snowboarding slopestyle lured more television viewers than any other event in the Sochi Winter Olympics.
“Slopestyle was by far the most popular thing that people watched globally,” Hackett said.
The group focused on how to create more consistency in slopestyle courses, meaning a sort of design standard for takeoff and landing ramps as well as rail sections.
There are a lot of opinions about course design but very little factual consensus. Hackett pushed the idea that course designers should not be political appointees but, like the Olympic athletes, the “very best of the best.”
Beyond course design, there was in-depth discussion on standards for snowmaking, which is even more varied than jump building. Even with the best jump, the speed and trajectory of athletes is often determined by the consistency of the snow. Again Hackett urged the IOC to ask Olympic and World Cup hosts to select internationally recognized snowmakers to help build venues, not just tap a political favorite.
“I was on a mission to shift course design and snowmaking away from politics and nationalism and toward the very best in the world,” Hackett said. “I sounded like a broken record.”
Another issue that could elevate safety on slopestyle courses is judging, Hackett said. There was plenty of discussion, he said, on how judges could emphasize style, possibly pushing athletes to throw perfect tricks over trying outlandish acrobatics in hopes of a higher score.
“Style kind of equates to trick mastery,” he said. “Doing a trick with style usually means having strength and control. If judges are rewarding style, they are rewarding athletes who are stronger. The athletes who can, say, hold a grab and tweak it out longer, they have more control and are the better riders.”
Hackett left the gathering with hopes of securing IOC funding to more closely study slopestyle course design and injuries. His data-gathering was hindered by the many event organizers and governing bodies that oversee the sport. With a Vail-based researcher who traveled to contests, Hackett said he could develop “high-quality science” that could improve performance and limit injuries.
“We are working hard to keep the spirit of slopestyle alive — essentially allowing athletes to express themselves on snow — while making it safer,” Hackett said. “I think everyone is walking away from that meeting knowing that slopestyle is a very important sport and it’s not going away.”