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September 1, 2014

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Extreme Park crashes taking outsize toll on women

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Josh Haner / The New York Times

A crash during the second heat of the women’s snowboard cross quarterfinals at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, on Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

Sarka Pancochova, a Czech snowboarder, led the slopestyle event after the first run. On her second trip down the course of obstacles and jumps, she flew through the air, performed a high-arcing, spinning trick, and smacked her head upon landing. Her limp body spun like a propeller into the gully between jumps and slid to a stop.

Pancochova was soon on her feet, and the uneasy crowd cheered. Her helmet was cracked nearly in half, back to front.

She was one of the lucky ones, seemingly OK, but her crash last week was indicative of a bigger issue: a messy collage of violent wipeouts at these Olympics. Most of the accidents have occurred at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing events like halfpipe, slopestyle and moguls.

And most of the injuries have been suffered by women.

Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The proportion of injuries to women is greater than it appears given that the men’s fields are generally larger.

The question, a difficult one, is why.

The Winter Games have always had dangerous events. But the Extreme Park, as the name suggests, is built on the ageless allure of danger. All of the events there have been added to the Olympic docket since 1992, each a tantalizing cocktail of grace and peril.

But unlike some of the time-honored sports of risk, including Alpine skiing, luge and ski jumping, there are few concessions made for women. For both sexes, the walls of the halfpipe are 22 feet tall. The slopestyle course has the same tricky rails and the same massive jumps. The course for ski cross and snowboard cross, a six-person race to the finish over jumps and around icy banked curves, is the same for men and women. The jumps for aerials are the same height. The bumps in moguls play no gender favorites.

“Most of the courses are built for the big show, for the men,” said Kim Lamarre of Canada, the bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, where the competition was delayed a few times by spectacular falls. “I think they could do more to make it safer for women.”

Compare the sports with downhill skiing, in which women have their own course, one that is shorter and less difficult to navigate. Or luge, in which female sliders start lower on the track than the men. Or ski jump, in which women were finally allowed to participate this year, but only on the smaller of the two hills. The Olympics have a history — sexist, perhaps — of trying to protect women from the perils of some sports.

But equality reigns at the Extreme Park, even to the possible detriment of the female participants.

“When we practice, we don’t practice on the same jumps as the men,” said J.F. Cusson, ski slopestyle coach for Canada and a former X Games gold medalist. “They’re too big for them. But when they compete, they have to jump on the same jumps, so they get hurt. It’s a big concern of mine.”

The most serious injury so far was to Maria Komissarova of Russia, who fractured her spine during training for ski cross. The course is longer and has larger jumps than ever before. To add to the excitement, it also has room for six racers, where previous Olympics ran heats of four.

“It’s one of the bigger courses, but it’s not especially unsafe,” Ralph Pfaeffli, coach of Switzerland’s ski cross team, said after the crash. “It clearly will have some challenge, and we will have to adapt.”

On the first qualifying run of snowboarding’s version of the event, in which athletes are timed descending alone, Helene Olafsen of Norway, a medal favorite, wrecked and hurt her knee. Five riders later, Jackie Hernandez of the United States landed sideways and fell backward, suffering a concussion when her head hit the ground. In the finals, Michela Moioli of Italy crashed, and injured her knee.

In moguls, Heidi Kloser of the United States broke her leg and tore knee ligaments, and Seo Jung-hwa of South Korea suffered a concussion. In training for the skiing halfpipe, Rowan Cheshire of Britain was knocked out when she smashed her face on a landing. She left on a stretcher, spent the night in a hospital and posted a photo on Twitter.

In snowboard slopestyle, Merika Enne of Finland, Christy Prior of New Zealand and Kjersti Buaas of Norway were knocked out of the competition with apparent concussions.

On the same course, in ski slopestyle, Yuki Tsubota of Canada cartwheeled violently after a jarring landing, her knee smashing her jaw. It followed the now-familiar progression: a nasty tumble, a huddle of medics and a downhill ride in a stretcher, out of the Olympics.

In some of the events, like the halfpipe and moguls, athletes can decide how fast or high they want to go. But in sports like slopestyle and snowboard and ski cross, they have to maintain a certain speed to launch themselves a certain distance to negotiate the course. Slowing down can be just as dangerous as going fast.

Olympic organizers want to build courses and competitions that are the equal, at least, of the Winter X Games, where most of the Extreme Park events gained wide popularity. But the invitation-only X Games have small fields, often 10 or fewer of the world’s best. The Olympics, by design, want larger fields with a wide cross-section of countries. The drop-off in talent between top athletes and the bottom of the field can be drastic.

There were concerns about slopestyle, which made its Olympic debut here, from the beginning. Men and women worried aloud about the course during training, complaining mostly about jumps bigger than many had seen before. The American snowboarder Shaun White said the course could be “intimidating,” and then pulled out of the competition, worried that an injury would spoil his chance to compete in the gentler confines of the halfpipe.

But the men managed to negotiate the slopestyle course with just one Olympic-ending injury. The women had far more difficulty.

Kaya Turski of Canada, a favorite in ski slopestyle, foreshadowed the carnage when she said before the competition that the course was “a little scary” and “unnecessarily risky.” She said that a lot of the women had not been on a course anywhere nearly as large and intimidating.

“It’s probably the most difficult course we’ve ever been on,” Turski said.

She then crashed on each of her two runs in qualifications and finished 19th.

The slopestyle course did present options, including two ramps at each of the three big jumps, one slightly smaller than the other. About half the women’s field used the smaller jumps in qualifications (none of the men did), and a few of the 12 finalists used the smaller jumps, but that did not prevent injuries.

“I see it every contest,” Cusson said. “Unless they are forced to hit the smaller side, the best ones will always go for the bigger jumps. They want to prove to everybody that they are capable. And then all the other girls will follow.”

While men are now attempting triple flips, women are not to the point of doing doubles. Cusson believes that the smaller jumps are sufficient for the tricks that women are doing. At last year’s world championships in Norway, Cusson required his team to use the smaller jumps to limit injuries. Some women were upset, afraid that their scores from judges would be lower without the greater risk. But Canada finished first, second and fifth in the competition.

“If all the girls did it, if they all hit the smaller jump, the problem would be solved,” Cusson said.

But most women view themselves as capable as men.

“We should be able to showcase our sport on the big jumps,” said Devin Logan of the United States, who won a silver medal in ski slopestyle. Logan said she prefers the bigger jumps because they give her more time in the air to perform her tricks, though she appreciates the option that the smaller jumps provide in poor weather or snow conditions. But peer pressure can be an issue, she said.

“We’re all competitive athletes,” Logan said. “We all want to stand on the podium. If someone is hitting tricks off the bigger jumps, then you’re going to want to, too.”

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