Over the past few seasons there have been some pretty high profile crashes in skiing. Chemmy Alcott is part way through her second season without racing after a crash, while Lynsey Vonn recently suffered concussion while racing. The Hahnenkamm in Kitzbuhel has also claimed several victims over the past four years, including Scott McCartney — who was kept in an induced coma to recover from his head injury.
With ski racers getting faster and faster the FIS have decided they need to improve safety in the sport and have teamed up with Italian company Dainese to create a ski racers airbag — yes, an airbag. The project is set to run until the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and will hopefully be successful in delivering a safety system to reduce injuries for ski racers.
Dainese have already pioneered a similar airbag system that is used in motorcycle racing, hence why the FIS have turned to them. They also make a variety of helmets, back protectors and pads that mortal skiers and snowboards, like you and me, use everyday on the slopes. So these guys are pretty much the best bet to get this right.
Günther Hujara, FIS Chief Race Director for the men’s Alpine Skiing, said: "Thanks to the close cooperation with Dainese that began three years ago, we have already seen many improvements in the protection of ski racers. Our latest project, the development of an air bag system for Alpine Skiing, is the most extensive of all and relies on Dainese's long-term experience in motor racing."
He added: "Research and data collection are under way since last season, seeking to define the exact point at which the racer is no longer in control and a fall becomes inevitable. Whilst much data have already been gathered, further information is still needed. We look forward to continuing this excellent cooperation with Dainese into the future."
The biggest stumbling block so far has been timing when the airbag would be released. Due to people skiing in very different fashions — just watch Didier Cuche and Bode Miller take on the same run if you don't believe me — and also due to the variety of crashes that take place. On motorcycles, the airbag is set to deploy when the rider leaves the bike with a forward rotation, but that wouldn't work in skiing.
The project, known as D-air® Ski, is working with another study put together by the FIS, the FIS Injury Surveillance System (FIS ISS), to gather as much data as possible on crashes, to enable the best possible development. The FIS ISS is working with 16 World Cup athletes, including Aksel Lund Svindal and Kristian Ghedina — who are serving as athlete testimonials on the D-air® Ski project.
Aksel Lund Svindal stated: "I'm honoured to be part of this high-level project. Protection is extremely important for us athletes and the development of an air bag for ski racing can increase the level of our safety. I'm happy to give my contribution for the data collection and to transfer my feedback. I hope that very soon all my colleagues will be able to use this outstanding device."
With ski racers traveling at speeds of over 90 mph, with 96.6 mph the faster recorded in a race (Klaus Kroell, on the Lauberhorn course in Wengen, Switzerland), safety has to be of paramount importance. But will an airbag system work?
I'm all for the exploration of making the sport safer and helping to guard against injury prevention, but I'm struggling to see how this will work. Will they have to rely on the user to set off the bag, or will studying enough algorithms and skiing styles bring around the answer?
Also, what will the impact be on skiing? As I said, I am completely for improved safety across all sports, but the excitement comes from watching athletes push themselves to the ultimate level of their ability. Will skiers push themselves further, knowing there is less risk, or will safety take precedent over competition?
After the tragic loss of Sarah Burke and the dreadful crash that Kevin Pearce had two years ago, will these safety measures make their way over the the freestyle elements of skiing and snowboarding? Safety is on a lot of people's minds at the moment and it will be interesting to see the long term effects on the sport, as long as we don't lose the exciting characters, the adrenaline rush from watching or participating and athletes continuing to push the limits of the sports.