A British skier crashes through wooden fencing on a downhill corner and slams 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, slides out on an icy corner and flies off the trail into a tree, breaking ribs and a shoulder blade, and punctures a lung.
These were not scenes from high-speed Alpine or ski cross events. They happened on cross-country ski and biathlon tracks made with artificial snow.
Many top Nordic skiers and biathletes say crashes like these are becoming more common as climate change reduces the availability of natural snow, forcing racers to compete on tracks with the artificial version.
Olympic and World Cup race organizers have come to rely on snowmaking equipment to create a ribbon of white through the hills since natural snowfall is less reliable.
Johanna Taliharm, an Estonian Olympic biathlete, said that racing on artificial snow comes with risks.
“Artificial snow is icier, therefore faster and more dangerous,” she said. “It also hurts more if you fall outside of the course when there is no fluffy snowbank, but a rocky and muddy hard ground.”
Artificial snow has a higher moisture content, making it ice up quickly, skiers and experts say.
“It can be really rock hard out there and falling can feel like falling on concrete,” said Chris Grover, head cross-country coach for the US Ski Team.
Unlike Alpine equipment, cross county skis do not have metal edges. They are designed to be thin and lightweight for climbing hills and gliding over flats. The boots are flexible and connect to the ski with a single metal bar under the toe. Nordic skiers do not use the edge of the ski to navigate around a corner. Instead, they take fast baby steps to get around the curve.
All of that is more difficult on artificial snow.
“We go very fast on the downhills,” said Jessie Diggins, an Olympic gold medalist and US Nordic ski team member. “I’ve gotten up to 76kph on the downhills on manmade snow, and it is scary because most of our race trails are built for natural snow, which is a little softer. You have a little more padding on the side of the trail where you have snowbanks, not just drop-offs.”
“I think it is getting a little more dangerous, and I’ve noticed at the World Cup when it is manmade snow, it is scary because instead of sliding on snow you’re sliding on ice,” added Diggins, who was the overall World Cup winner for the 2020-2021 season. “I think we’re seeing a higher percentage of falls. I feel it is a little more dangerous now.”
The International Ski Federation (FIS), which oversees ski racing around the world, keeps track of injuries going back to 2006.
The FIS Surveillance System was created to “monitor injury patterns and trends in the different FIS disciplines” and to “provide background data for in-depth studies of the causes of injuries.”
The reports track Alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding and ski jumping, but there is no data for injures in the Nordic events, which include cross-country skiing, biathlon and Nordic combined.
Asked about the concerns about artificial snow, the FIS did not respond.
There are other factors in play.
British skier Andrew Young was on the fourth lap of a 15km mass start cross-country ski race in Sweden in January when he crashed on the downhill and went through a fence, breaking his leg. He was rushed to the hospital and struggled through six weeks of recovery time, which ended his hopes for last year’s World Championships.
Young said climate change has “definitely changed” cross-country skiing, but it is not the only reason the sport is more dangerous.
Racecourses are shorter partly due to limited snow, but also to bring the skiers through the arena more often for the spectators and television cameras.
“Shorter loops mean more corners, which means more crashes,” Young said.
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