Olympics

Ski jumpers need better safety equipment, says official

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CBC
2/11/2014 6:22:12 AM
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Ski jumpers will have to don better helmets and could be required to wear body armour as part of a determined bid by authorities to make the sport as safe as possible, a top official said.

"It's an outdoor sport, it's a risky sport. We were able over the years to make it safer... we could make it (even) safer," said Walter Hofer, the ski jumping race director at the International Ski Federation (FIS).

Spectacular crashes are fairly common in jumping. Three-times Olympic gold medallist Thomas Morgenstern of Austria has ended up in hospital twice in the last two months after crashes where he suffered a broken finger as well as face and head injuries.

"The next goal must be to make safer helmets with higher standards. Maybe we can do something for the protection of the body," Hofer told reporters high up on the normal hill late on Monday night as women jumpers whistled by at 90 kph (60 mph) at the Sochi Olympics.

"Whatever is available on the market we will try."

Hofer noted that Alpine ski officials had spent a long time studying jackets that contain small air bags to help cushion the impact of falls.

"When they get something up there we will use it. At the moment I am preparing to use some protection for certain parts of our body, mostly the backbone," he said.

Tougher helmets will be introduced into Alpine skiing and ski jumping authorities want to adopt the same standards.

In recent years the FIS has taken a series of sometimes unpopular steps it says will make the sport fairer and safer.

The federation imposes minimum body mass index requirements to weed out jumpers which it says are too light. Jumpers have to wear body tight suits with low aerodynamics, much to the irritation of athletes such as four-times Olympic gold medallist Simon Ammann of Switzerland.

New hills have been redesigned to make the in-run smoother, a development which some jumpers say make takeoffs harder.

A complex new system to compensate skiers for wind conditions will be used at the Sochi Games for the first time.

Hofer, who has been at FIS for 22 years, said he began trying to make the sport safer some 20 years ago after he saw a series of bad falls.

"I started to talk to experts and they told me 'Are you crazy? If you make ski jumping safer nobody will watch'. It isn't right," said the ebullient Austrian.

"I would like to attract parents to deliver their children to our beloved sport in a way they know it is a sport where athletes are cared for."

As well as improving safety, Hofer - who notes that "when you release an athlete at 100 km/h from the takeoff, you can't take him back - is particularly keen to address rapidly changing wind conditions that have wrecked many a competition.

Headwinds help athletes soar further but if they are too strong they can produce dangerously long jumps. Conversely, tail winds cut flying distances.

In the past, officials would either scrap competitions altogether or restart them halfway through to take into account changing winds, which Hofer said frustrated spectators.

Jumpers used to be judged on distance and style. Under the new system, they now can also gain or be docked points to take wind conditions into account.

The calculations are made by a series of computers linked to seven sensors along the in-run.

"The athlete's performance is removed from the influence of external conditions," said Hofer, pointing to a screen which showed the wind strength and direction from each sensor.

The challenge for audiences is that the athlete who jumps the furthest does not always win.

Alexander Pointner, head coach of the Austrian team, told Reuters that spectators should not have "to think 'What is this, that guy jumped so far but he's only fourth, what's that?' Our sport should not be so difficult".

Hofer has no intention of changing his mind.

"Whatever makes ski jumping safer and fairer is worth it, even if sometimes you have to take something (away) from the transparency. People will understand sooner or later," he said.

FIS is looking at whether it would be possible to shine a blue laser line on the snow to show the public exactly where a jumper has to land to take the lead, he added.

Thomas Morgenstern (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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