A new round of #sochiproblems flared up this week when Dr. Lars Engebretsen, head of scientific activities at the IOC's medical and scientific department, announced that the injury rate in Olympic snowboard and ski slopestyle was "too high to be a sport that we have in the Olympics." Although he didn't cite any specific numbers, he went on to recommend that "The sport should change, otherwise we shouldn't have it."
That means that slopestyle could potentially lose its spot in the Olympics according to Engebretsen. “In this case, the only reason why slopestyle should be taken, could be taken out is the safety concerns,” he said.
True, the Sochi Olympic slopestyle course did claim some victims. Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone during practice. Sarka Pancochova hooked her heel edge on a frontside 720 in finals and split her helmet. Ty Walker bruised her heel and Shaun White hurt his wrist causing him to drop out of the event. On the ski side Canadian Yuki Tsubota knuckled a jump, smashing her knee into her face.
Yet even during the Games when media fixated on the dangers of the slopestyle course riders like Sage Kotsenburg and Chas Guldemond both downplayed the hype. "We ride and after the first day the riders give feedback on the course," Sage said in response to questions about the safety of the course. "Then they [the course builders] work on it." Later, on Facebook, Chas Guldemond backed the course when he posted "The jumps are sick and the flow is really good. Don't believe the media hype."
Strange too that Engebretsen chose to focus on slopestyle when in skicross Russian Maria Komissarova fell and was paralyzed from the waist down while several other women suffered knee injuries. In snowboardcross America's Jackier Hernandez was knocked out and Norway's Helene Olafsen was also hurt along with Italy's Omar Visintin.
Responding to Engebretsen's statements FIS secretary general Sarah Lewis said that, "In regard to the slopestyle events that took place in Sochi, it would be premature to comment on the quantity and quality of injuries that occurred as the full IOC Injury and Illness Surveillance Study conducted by the IOC Medical Commission has not yet been finalized." She added that Engebretsen had been making "personal comments which do not represent the position of the IOC."
Ultimately the fate of slopestyle as an Olympic event rests in the hands of the IOC's executive board. But with slopestyle capturing some of the highest TV ratings of the Games and slopestyle favorite Mark McMorris winning the social media Olympics as the most Tweeted about athlete it seems unlikely that the event will really be cut.
Engebretsen himself admits that slopestyle is exciting, but that the problem is "it's just become, right now anyway, too exciting.” Those ratings and the hype around slopestyle are also why he’s raising a red flag. “That’s partly the reason why we have to be careful with it, because everything that’s going on TV from the Olympics creates a trend, people want to do the same thing,” he says.
It’s undisputed that the course in Sochi was big but that’s what allowed riders to thrown down their full bag of tricks and show the world the highest level of contest snowboarding. After all, we did see the first contest backside 1620 japan from Sage Kotsenburg and the first women’s contest frontside 1080 from Sina Candrian. With statements like Engebretsen’s perhaps the greater concern isn't that the IOC will remove slopestyle, rather that we end up with a downsized course where riders can't truly deliver their best.