Debate over ski designs kicks into high gear 

FIS looks at new designs to reduce injuries

Following a rash of injuries to World Cup skiers in the run-up to the 2010 Olympic Games - including to many of Canada's top Alpine prospects - the International Ski Federation (FIS) began to investigate the issue in December 2009.

Working with the University of Salzburg and a panel of 63 experts, FIS has been studying every crash and injury in ski racing. They came up with a list of five predominant injury risk factors, and pledged to address them all over a three-year period.

The list of factors includes things like course preparation techniques, such as the use of fertilizers and water injection, changing course conditions on race day, maintaining consistent conditions from top to bottom, course setting and terrain use, course inspection time allotted to athletes, training runs and equipment - namely boots, bindings, plates and the skis themselves. As well, speed athletes will be able to wear armour under their clothes, including spine protectors.

While all these changes are being phased in, one of those promises is shaping up to be a battle - changes to the shape of skis.

The debate will come to ahead at a special congress on Oct. 21, the day before the World Cup season gets underway with a women's giant slalom in Soelden, Austria. The final equipment specifications will be decided, which will give ski manufactures a few months to complete prototypes for the end of the 2011-2012 season, giving athletes more time to train on them before the start of the 2012-2013 season when the new skis will be mandatory.

Last season, FIS used forerunners to test skis that are longer and have less curvature. The skis absorb more energy and reduce the amount of force placed on skiers' knees, which was increasing with new ski designs. In July, FIS recommended a minimum radius of 35 metres for men's slalom, giant slalom and super G skis, and a 30-metre minimum for women's skis. That was actually a compromise, as FIS originally sought a minimum of 40 metres.

The radius is a measurement of how large a circle would be if you followed the ski's curvature around a circle. The less curve in the ski, the larger the circle. Currently, GS skis have an average radius of 28 metres.

Downhill skis would also have their turning radius increased slightly, and will be narrower to reduce force on the knees.

As The Economist reported last week, there are no plans to ban "carving" skis, which have become a standard over 20 years, just to limit the amount of carve.

Right now, skiers are debating whether the new minimums are correct, should be reduced or avoided completed. So far the only skier who has voiced any support for the changes is Austria's Benjamin Raich, while there is a long list of skiers opposed to the suggested minimums, including American skier Ted Ligety.

"I hate to sound uncompromising on the new FIS GS radius and length rules after FIS backed off its original 40-metre radius rule to a reduce 35 m, but the truth is it is still going to be bad for the sport," he wrote on his blog, "Show me and everyone else the data behind these rules and why GS is the target of such drastic changes. FIS says it's implementing these rules based on studies that the University of Salzburg has been doing, but to my knowledge they have not contact (sic) any of the athletes being affected by these changes. Seems like we would be a pertinent resource for such a study, not outsiders."

Ligety said the biggest impact would be on young racers, who are "not big or strong enough" for the new skis designs. It also places another burden on parents, who will have to purchase new skis.

Ligety suggested, and has received support from other skiers including Bode Miller, that FIS should stay out of regulating equipment and stick to focusing on hill safety and preparation.

To be fair, Ligety did give a prototype ski with a 40m radius a try before wading into the debate. "And quite frankly, they suck. I felt like Phil Mahre, circa '84. Try as I might, I could not get the skis to come around without a huge slide and step."

Ligety also questioned why FIS was looking at technical events, which have a relatively low number of injuries compared to speed events.



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