Almost every Winter Olympic sport warrants a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer on the bottom of the screen — sorry, curling — but is there one that puts its athletes in more danger than the rest?
Quantifying 300-foot ski-jumps against lugers gliding down the track at 90 mph seems as challenging a task as attempting each sport in the first place, and U.S. Olympic team chief doctor James Moller agrees. “Each sport has its own inherent risk,” Moeller told the Washington Post in 2010, adding that it’s impossible to single one out as the riskiest.
Before determining the most dangerous sports, we must first determine what makes a sport dangerous — is the ultimate judge the frequency of injury or the severity? According to Professor Roald Bahr, the head of the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Centre at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NiH), “The problem with comparisons of injuries and risks among various sports is that we need to find studies that have been conducted using identical methods and definitions. These aren’t available for all fields of sport. It’s especially hard to compare sports for individual contestants with team sports.”
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However, with an eye test, it’s easy to weed out the crop of less dangerous sports from the higher-risk ones. Sports mainly requiring stamina, such as cross-country skiing and biathlon, are inherently safer than sports that require speed and acrobatic skills. Likewise, figure skating, though no less difficult to perfect, carries relatively lower risk of danger due to its competitors’ lower speeds and heights. Then there are sports like speedskating and ice hockey, which are deceptively dangerous, as the confluence of high speeds, large bodies, slick, hard surfaces and sharp blades can lead to serious injury.
But if the most dangerous sport is the one that scores high in injury severity and injury frequency, then the focus shifts to the slopes. Research does suggest that the relatively new snowboarding is in fact more dangerous than skiing. In the same Post story, orthopedic surgeon William Sterett, lead doctor for the U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski Team confirmed, “Normally, skiers and snowboarders have the same injury rate, but some of these [snowboarders] are going so big on air and tricks that they’re getting hurt.”
The skiing aerials event is actually more tightly regulated than its snowboarding sister, as skiers must complete at least 100 backflips on water before they are allowed to try one on snow. With few restrictions on snowboarders, no trick is too high or too fast to leave off the table.
Within the skiing family, alpine events - where downhill skiers can reach speeds north of 80 mph on a steep, unpredictable slope - are more dangerous than ski jumping events, whose competitors land on a gently sloped platform at (the relative) snail’s pace of 50 mph.
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But the Olympians who reach the highest speeds - carrying arguably the greatest risk of serious injury - are the brave souls of the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events. Trying to determine which one is more dangerous than the other two is almost pointless, as athletes in all three reach speeds of 90 mph, riding sleds that weigh over 50 pounds, zooming down a narrow, windy track in which the slightest wrong move can spell disaster. Despite wearing helmets, neck and head injuries are not uncommon for competitors, whose speed, relative lack of control and inability to come to a full stop make it hard to minimize the severity of a crash once it’s already begun.
Still, as the Winter Olympics have proved time and again, there's little world-class athletes wouldn't do to attain gold.