Peter Shelton

Messing With Ski Shapes, Part Two

Posted in Ski evolution, Watch columns by pshelton on January 5, 2012

The battle continues over new ski shapes dictated for 2013 by the International Ski Federation.

The debate blows hot on the slopes and in the blogosphere. (Although we haven’t heard lately from American giant slalom specialist Ted Ligety, who protested early in the season that the FIS was attempting to “ruin” his sport.)

In an open letter to the FIS, another American, a mechanical engineer and former all-American ski racer from Vermont named David Dodge, wrote that he believes the attempt by skiing’s governing body to improve safety will actually have the reverse effect.

Dodge, who has developed and sells an all-carbon fiber ski boot, directly challenges the assumption that by making skis less turn-y, less “aggressive,” the sport will see fewer serious injuries, particularly knee injuries, which the FIS says it is targeting.

Dodge believes that GS racers will find a way to make the new 35-meter skis carve the same 27-meter turn they make now on curvier skis. They will tilt the skis up farther, increasing the edge angle and shortening the turn radius, but in so doing they will put their knees in far more vulnerable positions. Dodge writes in detail about the biomechanics of the knee and its ligaments, and how overangulation leads to all-too-common ACL injuries.

I couldn’t follow every medical nuance he invoked in that section, but I could relate to what former U.S. Team skier Warner Nickerson said on his web page. Nickerson quotes an FIS communiqué from August, which stated they would “only implement new rules that are scientifically proven to enhance athlete safety and reduce risk of injury.”

Nickerson asks: “Where is the proof? Where is the data? Who tested the new skis? Which companies made them? What was the [snow] surface? Where did it take place? What type of terrain was involved? Where is the peer review?” All good questions.

He also noted that Marc Girardelli, a five-time World Cup overall winner in the 1980s (when skis had about the same built-in radii as the new FIS shapes), suffered through 17 ski-related surgeries, five on one knee, six on the other. “So much for safe skiing in the 80s,” Nickerson wrote.

He also said that 41 of the top 50 men in the current GS rankings, including nine of the top 10, had signed a petition asking the FIS to rethink its retro directive.

I did finally find on-line the study on which the FIS bases its conclusions. And there were a few answers there to Nickerson’s questions.

The report didn’t say who made the prototype “less aggressive” skis, or where they were tested. But it did include a quote from Peter Struger, a retired Austrian racer and one of the testers: “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.” Whoa! Could that be any more lukewarm?

The other testers named were also retired World Cup racers, two more from Austria and one from Lichtenstein. Four retired racers. Three from Austria. Hmmm.

There is no empirical data from the testers. The actual study on which the FIS is basing its decision was published in 2010. It is a work of sociology, a survey of 63 people within the ski racing community: 12 athletes, 19 coaches, 12 race officials/organizers, 10 equipment company reps, and 10 “experts.” The interviews were conducted in 2006-07 and “led by the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Center (and the University of Salzburg) and supported by dj Orthopedics, a global medical device company specializing in rehab and regenerative products.” It turns out dj is DonJoy Orthopedics Global, whose big seller is the Defiance knee brace. Hmmm.

The interviews were quite exhaustive, but as far as I could see, there is no biomechanical or statistical data, no actual numbers on injury rates and their causes. The study simply states: “The FIS has deemed injury rates unacceptable.”

After much crunching of survey answers, the sociologists came up with four major injury risk factors, in the order they were mentioned by respondents: the snow, the athlete, the equipment, and the course. Even though equipment came in at No. 3, the report stated, “The system ski/plate/binding/boot subcategory is a key risk factor with absolute high priority.” It went on to say that the current ski “system,” so beloved by Ligety and other racers for its carving precision, is “too direct in force transmission and too aggressive in the ski-snow interaction.” Too efficient, in other words – too good.

My guess is, the FIS realized there’s not much they can do to change the variability of snow (the No. 1 risk factor) and even less they could do to change the athletes (who just want to go fast). So, they’re picking on equipment, the only thing they can actually control.

They can change the way they set courses, and that has been happening for, well, forever, in an effort to slow skiers down. It doesn’t work. As I learned from former U.S. Ski Team head coach Paul Major, “Manufacturers can always build a ski to match changes in course design.”

Which is why this effort is so nuts, so contradictory. As one of the few English language comments in the report said (most were in German, Finnish, etc.): “If we’re trying to slow the athletes down, the equipment companies are going to keep trying to find ways to speed them up – they want to win.”

So, the answer is to force manufacturers to make skis longer, make them straighter? Hmmm.

Backwards, into the future!

To be continued . . .

One Response

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  1. Steve Casper said, on January 19, 2012 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks Peter for your series on the FIS and their new ski shape proposals. I’ve been looking all over the internet for a straight-up piece on this and yours is the best. Looking forward to more updates….

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