The Most Painful Winter Olympic Sports
Sports injury experts weigh in. Spoiler: Curling doesn’t come out on top.
Dangerous sports can produce surprisingly small numbers of injuries. Events that invariably injure participants may be largely free of true catastrophes. Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and author of That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, said it’s essential to keep these facts in mind as we explore the pain of the Winter Olympics.
Much of what happens at the Games is dangerous, with athletes going insanely fast and/or soaring absurdly high in conditions that can be both icy and windy. (There has already been controversy over snowboarders having to compete in 45 mph winds—over 80 percent of the runs ended in falls.) Yet sports that occasionally generate clips that traumatize us all may take less of a toll on participants than ones where athletes pay a smaller price on day-in, day-out basis.
Here’s a look at the physical impact of the Winter Olympics, with sports listed from low to high in terms of “That’s gotta hurt.”
Curling: A competition in which a curling stone slides slowly down the ice as competitors sweep is—get ready!—largely painless. As the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded after getting curlers to self-report injuries: “Curling appears to be a relatively safe winter sport.” In particular, they noted only “2 per 1000 athlete exposures” resulted in injuries severe enough to cause a “time loss” for participants. (If you’re unfamiliar with curling, here are some “highlights.”)
Cross-Country Skiing/Biathlon: Geier pointed out what’s obvious to anyone who has participated in this sport or tried watching it on television: “You’re not going to get traumatic injuries.” Which is not to say you can’t get hurt. Olympic athletes regardless of event generally face a danger of “overuse,” with injuries caused through repeating the same motions over and over. Even so, Geier termed this sport—whether or not combined with biathlon’s gunplay—decidedly “manageable” from a pain standpoint.
Ski Jumping: One simple test of the toll a sport takes is how long you can pursue it at an elite level. Japan’s Noriaki Kasai won a silver medal at the 1994 Olympics… and another silver at the 2014 Games. At age 45, he is competing in this Olympics too. Quite simply, if you know what you’re doing, Geier said ski jumping is “not very dangerous” and unfairly feared by many observers: “It’s probably got the worst perception of any sport in the Winter Olympics because of the Wide World of Sports’ ‘Agony of Defeat.’” (Refresh your memory below.)
In fact, ski jumping is “the second safest ski discipline after cross-country skiing. It really is very safe if the conditions are good.” Assuming you don’t go all agony of defeat, what are the risks? Geier noted there’s always the chance that, for instance, you “land more on your left than your right and get a meniscus tear.” But it’s a healthy option from a wear-and-tear standpoint: “How many jumps are you making a day?”
Speed Skating: Geier said a speed skater can be thought of like a “sprinter,” whose most common injuries tend to be “muscle strains” from the “explosion” necessary to get off to a good start. Of course, skaters face a risk runners don’t: “You can always crash and break your wrist.” (Indeed, speed skating wipeouts can be quite unnerving, particularly when they trigger a chain reaction of skater collapses.)
But even when things go wrong, the outcomes usually aren’t as horrific as in this next category.
Bobsleigh/Luge/Skeleton: Geier noted practitioners of the sled sports can get hurt during the starting phase, with injuries including “quad, hamstring strains when you push off at the very beginning to generate speed.”
Then there are the accidents. While the injury rate is low, there is “potential for serious injuries high due to the speeds that they’re traveling. Bad things could happen.” (Geier emphasized: “You’ve got to control the conditions.” A failure to do so is extremely worrying because any “irregularity in the surface” can lead to “very serious injuries.”)
Freestyle Skiing/Snowboarding: “There’s no equipment that can protect you if do some ridiculous flip and land on the back of your head,” Geier said. While a Chloe Kim run can look effortless and magical (like this one when she was only 14)…
….these sports are dangerous with a capital D. After all, athletes are soaring and spinning—making pretty much every landing potentially risky—and they compete outdoors in conditions that can rapidly change.
When I interviewed the legendary skateboarder Christian Hosoi, he noted when his kids started skating he focused on making sure they “learned how to fall.” Quite simply, this is a sport where you need to know how to protect yourself when you go down. (Geier said these are the events he would be most worried about children watching, since they might be tempted to duplicate the feats without “all the coaching and the training things the pros have.”)
Yet the fact remains: It’s possible to have a run that goes exactly as planned in which the competitor isn’t injured or—based on Kim—even winded.
These next two categories inevitably take a toll.
Figure Skating: Geier said the good news for figure skaters is they generally avoid traumatic injuries. The bad? There’s bound to be “wear-and-tear from relentless training.” Lower back issues are common and he singled out “ankle and foot injuries just because of all the landing and pushing off with your foot.” (He made the point that obviously skaters don’t cover epic distances like ski jumpers when they leap, but they likely leave the ground far, far more times each day.)
Indeed, if figure skaters start young enough, the relentless routine of training can stunt growth and maturation. “As soon as that really, really intense training stops, the hormones circulate back to normal,” Geier said, which is why often when skaters quit “all of a sudden they look like a different person.”
Yet if you have to single out a sport with more than its share of suffering, it’s hard to top…
Ice Hockey: Many Winter Olympic sports are dangerous when something goes wrong. What sets hockey apart is “you can have injuries as part of something you were supposed to do.” After all, checking is a part of the game, where you and an opponent slam together. (With the damage exacerbated if you then “crash into the boards or the ice.”)
“There’s multiple ways to suffer trauma,” Geier said. Beyond the collisions that can cause concussions, there are frequent injuries from “changing directions on the ice.” (In general in sports, any activity that regularly requires you to go at top speed and abruptly change direction will eventually hurt you.)
Geier also noted hockey players regularly suffer from “lacerations,” not to mention “tooth and dental injuries.” In general, it’s a sport full of potentially harmful things, ranging from the sticks each player carries to slap shots known to top 100 mph.
While hockey’s injuries may not be as dramatic as a luge run that goes awry, their frequency and sheer variety sets hockey apart as the most painful Winter Olympic sport. Next time you watch the NHL, know they’re earning their money. (If you doubt it, here’s a reminder of just how unsafe it is on the ice.)