Athletes point out the dangers of artificial snow


A British skier crashes into a wooden fence on a downhill turn and crashes into a pole, breaking his leg. An American hits an icy patch at the bottom of a hill and crashes into a fence, breaking one ski and twisting the other, also breaking his leg.

Another American, training before a biathlon race, slips into an icy corner and flies off the track into a tree, breaking his ribs and a shoulder blade and puncturing a lung.

These were not scenes of alpine skiing or high speed ski cross. They took place on cross-country ski and biathlon trails in artificial snow.

Many top athletes claim that such accidents are more and more common as climate change reduces the availability of natural snow, forcing runners to compete on tracks with the artificial version. Organizers of Olympic and World Cup races have come to rely on snowmaking equipment to create a white ribbon across the hills, as natural snowfall is less reliable.

Johanna Taliharm, an Estonian Olympic biathlete, said running on artificial snow comes with risks.

“Artificial snow is freezing cold, therefore faster and more dangerous,” she said. “It also hurts more if you fall off the course when there is no fluffy snowbank but hard rocky muddy ground.”

Artificial snow has a higher moisture content, which causes it to freeze quickly, say skiers and experts.

Germany’s Tim Tscharnke falls to Russian Nikita Kriukov, right, after touching Finnish Sami Jauhojaervi’s skis in the classic-style men’s final of the cross-country team sprint competitions at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games , February 19, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.

“It can be very hard there and falling can feel like you are hitting concrete, so it makes the situation a little more dangerous than if it was natural snow,” said Chris Grover, coach. in chief of US Ski. Team.

Some sites even make snow, then store it under wood chips during the summer and spread it around a trail when it’s cold. Artificial snow, as welcome as it is, does not improve with age. Race organizers should take this into account when designing courses, say skiers and experts.

“It’s pretty universally accepted that the courses are firmer and faster than ever before,” said Gus Schumacher, member of the US cross country team.

John Aalberg, a former Olympic cross-country skier who designs Olympic Nordic ski courses, including for the Beijing Games, said they always consider icy conditions when designing a course. He said a bigger safety issue was the change in race format from individual starts to mass starts.

“When you ski one by one like they did in the ’90s, you might have gnarier descents and turns because they were coming one at a time,” he said.

Unlike alpine equipment, cross-country skis do not have metal edges. They are designed to be thin and light for climbing hills and sliding over flat terrain. The boots are flexible and connect to the ski with a single metal bar under the toe. Nordic skiers do not use the ski edge to navigate a turn. Instead, they take quick action to get around the curve.

All of this is more difficult on artificial snow.

Olympic gold medalist and member of the US Nordic ski team, Jessie Diggins, said she had reached 76 kilometers per hour (47 mph) downhill on artificial snow “and it’s scary because most of our race tracks are built for natural snow ”.

“I think it gets a little more dangerous and I noticed that at the World Cup when it’s artificial snow it’s scary because instead of sliding on snow you are sliding on ice, ”added World Cup winner Diggins. for the 2020-21 season. “I think we are seeing a higher percentage of falls. I think it’s a little more dangerous now.

The International Ski Federation keeps track of injuries dating back to 2006. The FIS surveillance system was created to “monitor injury patterns and trends” and provide data “for in-depth studies of the causes of injuries”.

The reports cover alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and ski jumping. But there is no injury data in Nordic events, which includes cross-country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined.

When the Associated Press asked if the organization keeps track of accidents in cross-country and biathlon races, an FIS spokesperson said: “We track injuries during our races, but we don’t report back. not our public research at this time. ” When asked about concerns about artificial snow, FIS did not respond.

Russia's Alexander Terentev, right, and Czech Michal Novak, left, crash during a men's cross-country sprint quarter-final at the FIS Nordic Skiing World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany on 25 February 2021.
Russia’s Alexander Terentev, right, and Czech Michal Novak, left, crash during a men’s cross-country sprint quarter-final at the FIS Nordic Skiing World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany on 25 February 2021.

John Morton, two-time Olympic biathlete and founder of Morton Trails, a Vermont company that designs ski trails, said there are international standards for Nordic ski racing. He remembers attending a conference where they discussed bank turns on fast descents, but some EU officials were reluctant to say that would make things too easy.

“There’s this constant drive to make it more exciting and more dramatic,” he said. “It’s very clear that they want challenging courses, they want to push athletes to their limits.”

In this context, he said, courses designed for natural snow “may need to be changed now because everything is faster – the skis are faster, the wax is faster”.

Artificial snow “isn’t really snow at all,” said Jim Steenburgh, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah. “What it is is water that is blown through nozzles which break the water into extremely small and tiny droplets which then freeze.”

Artificial snow has a higher water content, so it has a high density and tends to be very durable, which makes it ideal for ski racing, at least for downhill skiing, Steenburgh said. But maybe not for Nordic athletes.

British skier Andrew Young was on the fourth lap of a 15-kilometer mass-start cross-country ski race in Sweden in January when he crashed on the descent and went through a fence, breaking his leg. This ended his hopes for the 2021 World Championships.

Young said climate change has “definitely changed” cross-country skiing. He also noted that the races are shorter partly because of the limited snowfall, but also to bring skiers through the arena more often for spectators and television cameras.

As Young put it, “Shorter loops mean more turns, which means more crashes.”

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