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Alpine Canada safety summit

FIS looking at ski redesigns, course preparation



Alpine Canada is hosting a safety summit this week to try and reduce the rising number of injuries in the sport - which left most of Canada's senior athletes sidelined this past season.

The sport of alpine skiing has always been dangerous given the high speeds involved and changing conditions, but the level of risk seems to have hit a new level recently.

The Canadian Alpine Ski Team has been hit particularly hard in recent years, both in the run-up to the Olympics and over the past season. The injury list includes top skiers John Kucera (left leg), Manuel Osborne-Paradis (left leg and knee), Robbie Dixon (concussion), Kelly VanderBeek (left knee), Jean-Philippe Roy (right knee), Francois Bourque (left knee), Kelly McBroom (left leg), Larissa Yurkiw (left knee) and Louis-Pierre Helie (concussion). Jan Hudec and Erik Guay both missed races this year with minor injuries. Genevieve Simard and Allison Forsyth have also retired in recent years as a result of injuries.

Other teams have also been impacted by injuries this season. Most notably, Austria lost Mario Scheiber and Georg Streitberger, while Hans Gregger was saved through emergency brain surgery.

The International Skiing Federation (FIS) started an investigation into the rash of injuries in December of 2009 after noting a spike in the number of injuries through the FIS Injury Surveillance System.

While that investigation is continuing - and FIS tested some new equipment and safety systems this year - Alpine Canada Alpin (ACA) announced plans in February to host a Ski Racing Safety Summit. The summit will take place at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary this week.

While the world was invited to take part, the ACA wanted a national forum to address the issue in a way that touches all levels of ski racing.

"We want to significantly reduce the amount of serious injuries in our sport. We want to keep it exciting, but at the same time make it as safe as possible," said Max Gartner, ACA president.

Virtually everything will be on the table, including ski, boot and binding technology, course preparation, inspections and training runs and safety systems.

"Our goal is to develop domestic recommendations we can implement immediately (without waiting for FIS)," said Gartner. "We will also develop a strategy for working with FIS to reduce injuries at the World Cup level."

Whistler's Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who suffered a broken leg and torn ligaments in a downhill race in January, was to be the guest speaker.

The two-day summit was to place on Tuesday and Wednesday, after which recommendations would be considered. Any changes could come as early as next year.

Meanwhile, FIS gave an update on its activities in January.

FIS has been conducting research since last December with the University of Salzburg and a panel of 63 experts, in response to a rash of injuries in the lead-up to the Olympic Winter Games. The panel identified five predominant injury risk factors and is in the process of addressing them all.

Some of their ongoing work includes outfitting forerunners with sensors to study speed, energy and other forces, and measuring snow conditions and what impact different conditions have on racers - whether those conditions are natural, or enhanced by course workers using fertilizers or water injection. As well, there is work being done to develop new skis for downhill and giant slalom that are better adapted to the speeds and forces generated by the athletes. Former World Cup racers forerunning World Cup races are testing those prototype skis.

"The goal of producing these prototypes was, first of all, to gain more safety," said Dr. Michael Schineis, chair of the Ski Racing Suppliers' Association, back in January. "The ski industry is ready to invest in the safety of the athletes. A key problem seems to be the combination of aggressive snow and aggressive skiing. To make the skis less aggressive, the new prototypes are experimental in terms of radius, length, standing height and ski plates.

"This is a very interesting project. Due to the geometrical changes, these prototype skis were clearly different to ski on and require changes to the ski technique. But they are definitely skiable."

FIS said that the sport, which is based on speed and risk-taking, would always have dangers, but they are working hard to address things like equipment and course conditions that add to the overall risk equation.