The most dangerous Winter Olympic sport is…

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published February 21, 2018

Key Takeaways

Austrian snowboarder Markus Schairer broke his neck during the men’s snowboard cross quarterfinals at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The 30-year-old shattered his fifth cervical vertebra when he landed on his neck during the penultimate jump. Fortunately, Schairer suffered no permanent neurological damage, according to the Austrian Olympic Committee.

Clearly, snowboarding is one of the most perilous events in the Winter Olympics. But is it the most hazardous event? If not, which is the most dangerous?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), based in Lausanne, Switzerland, compiles injury statistics after every Olympiad. The stats aren’t in yet for PyeongChang 2018, but the IOC has released injury reports from the 2014 Olympic Winter Games held in Sochi, Russia.

So, what’s the most dangerous winter game, according to the IOC?

It’s freestyle aerial skiing, in which almost half—49%—of all its athletes suffered an injury (48.8 injuries per 100 athletes).

“Any of the high-velocity sports are going to be problematic—skiing in particular, because you’re not protected  by anything per se,” sports medicine physician Alexis Tingan, MD, CAQSM, assistant professor, Clinical Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Penn Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, told MDLinx. “The bobsled seems dangerous because you’re going up to 80 mph but, unlike skiing, you’re protected by the shell of the bobsled itself.”

Indeed, the highest injury rates occurred in winter sports with aerial maneuvers and high speed such as slopestyle snowboard (37% of all athletes injured), snowboard cross (34%), slopestyle skiing (31%), halfpipe skiing (26%), moguls skiing (25%), alpine skiing (21%), and snowboard halfpipe (18%).

Overall, 12% of athletes at the 2014 Winter Olympics incurred at least one injury. However, about two-thirds of injuries occur during training; only about one third occur during competition (with the notable exception of ice hockey, in which injuries during competition were more than double than that of training.)

Also, injuries in the Olympics don’t discriminate, as the frequency in men (13.2 injuries per 100 athletes) is roughly equal to that of women (14.9 per 100 athletes). Men have a greater risk of injury in ski jumping though, while women are at a significantly higher risk in slopestyle skiing.

Least dangerous games

Now that you know which event is the most dangerous, take a guess which event is the least dangerous?

Nope. Wrong. It’s not curling.

The event with the fewest injuries is Nordic combined skiing, in which less than 4% of its athletes get hurt. Other sports with low injury rates (about 8 or fewer injuries per 100 athletes) are speed skating, biathlon, ski jumping, cross-country skiing, luge, and short track skating.

“When you’re watching ski jumping, you think it’s high risk but it's actually really low risk,” Dr. Tingan said. “Part of it has to do with the fact that you're not physically competing with someone directly,” and potentially colliding against one another, as in downhill skiing.

But back to curling…

Curlers have an injury rate of 12%, which is statistically greater than that of Olympic hockey players (11.2%). Why? Not because of traumatic injuries like broken limbs or concussions. Curling is associated with a high level of repetitive strain injuries—75% of all the injuries in curling are due to overuse.

So, the next time you hear someone say curling looks easy, just brush ‘em off.

Injuries per 100 athletes for 2014 Winter Olympic events

The most dangerous events:

  • freestyle aerial skiing - 48.8
  • slopestyle snowboard - 37.0
  • snowboard cross - 34.4
  • slopestyle skiing - 30.8
  • halfpipe skiing - 25.5
  • moguls skiing - 24.6
  • alpine skiing - 20.7
  • snowboard halfpipe - 18.2

The least dangerous events:

  • short track skating - 8.5
  • luge - 8.3
  • cross-country skiing - 7.7
  • ski jumping - 7.3
  • biathlon - 6.9
  • speed skating - 4.5
  • Nordic combined skiing - 3.7
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