Remember the Fall Olympics in Vancouver? That was the year that skaters … not the racing ones but the dancing ones … were falling all the time as if they had some kind of special extra slippery ice on the skating rink. Well, this year, at Sochi II, we are witnessing the Fall Olympics mainly on the snow slopes and half pipe, where lousy snow conditions, caused by warm conditions with some rain, have messed everything up.
But there is an interesting twist this year. According to a piece in the New York Times, women are being affected more than men:
…most of the injuries have been sustained by women.
Through Monday night, a review of the events at the Extreme Park counted at least 22 accidents that forced athletes out of the competition or, if on their final run, required medical attention. Of those, 16 involved women. The proportion of injuries to women is greater than it appears given that the men’s fields are generally larger.
Twenty-two falls, with 16 as women, is statistically significant (Chi squared = 4.545 with 1 degrees of freedom, two-tailed P=0.0330)
Generally, but not always, women and men have different rules or equipment when they play similar sports. In basketball, the rules seem about the same, and the court and the nets are the same, but for women’s basketball the ball is slightly smaller, I’m told. For hockey, as far as I know, the equipment is the same, but women are not allowed to body slam each other. But for many other sports, including a lot of summer and winter Olympic sports, there isn’t any difference as far as I know. Obviously, when there is no need for a different set of rules or alternate gear, there shouldn’t be any difference.
Women use a different downhill course than men, shorter and with, it appears, fewer jumps. That is a little hard to understand since there is no clear difference between what the two sexes are expected to do. On the other hand, I’m not a skier. Perhaps the body strength required to not buckle under the g-forces for so long is sufficiently different for men and women. On the other hand, isn’t this mostly lower body strength, and wouldn’t women have an offsetting advantage having less bulky upper body mass to work against? Any skiers out there want to comment on this?
It is interesting to watch the half pipe. The men and women have the same pipe, the same rules, the same judging, and in the end, produce the same array of spectacular gravity defying moves. In fact, given the standard half-pipe mode of attire, it is not easy to tell which gender is doing the deed. (That could just be me … maybe I need a bigger TV.) This applies to varying degrees across most of the fancy skiing events. But the suggestion has been made that this could be changed. From the same NYT piece:
“Most of the courses are built for the big show, for the men,” said Kim Lamarre of Canada, the bronze medalist in slopestyle skiing, where the competition was delayed a few times by spectacular falls. “I think they could do more to make it safer for women.”
Think back to the afore mentioned Fall Olympics in Vancouver. As I recall, a very large proportion of the ice-dancy people fell during their performances. But in previous Olympics, and during the current Olympics, this has not been the case. Aside from some physical explanation, i.e., that Canadian Ice is extra slippery (unlikely!), I would attribute this to a behavioral syndrome. Some sort of demand for a certain kind of extra jumpy move that would lead to more slippage may have emerged in the sport, peaking at the time of the Vancouver games, and since then either all the skaters learned how to handle this with additional training and experience, or as a group, they’ve shifted their expectations.
Something similar may be happening with the Sochi snow sports. One of the downhill women’s races had several bad runs in a row, and the coaches were able to pass information on to the skiers so they could avoid one particularly bad spot on the run, a jump that was often followed by an out of control spinning off the mountain effect, so the latter half, roughly, of the runs did not abort. A similar cultural, or training related, effect may be at work at Sochi’s slopestyle event for women. Check this out:
J. F. Cusson, ski slopestyle coach for Canada and a former X Games gold medalist, said that his women’s team usually did not practice on jumps as large as the ones the men use, for fear of injury.
“But when they compete, they have to jump on the same jumps, so they get hurt,” he said. “It’s a big concern of mine.”
It seems reasonable to assume that if the women trained for the setting they would be competing in, they would not have as much trouble. This vaguely reminds me of the early days of the Olympics (early 20th century, not Ancient Greek) when women were for the first time allowed to engage in a foot race, a 100 meter dash or something along those lines. It was hot, they were untrained, they wore petticoats. They all fainted. That was not because they were women unable to run. It was because they were women set up for failure, and expected to faint. I’m sure a lot of guys found that to be as hot as the weather was that day.
In a way, the Olympics are a slow and ponderous thing, since they happen only every four years. I suspect that the sex difference in wipe-out and injury rates we saw today will be attenuated in future games due not to adjustments in context or gear but rather to changes in training and preparation.