L Alpine skiing

Dominik Paris, downhill star from South Tyrol. He will also have to drive with an airbag in the future. © TEYSSOT / Pierre Teyssot

Nonsense or helper? Airbag requirement unsettles the ski scene

From next year, downhill skiers in the Alpine Ski World Cup will have to wear airbags. That sounds like more security, but it causes concerns in the scene. Many athletes have an uneasy feeling.

Ski racer Broderick Thompson stumbles at high speed, falls, is catapulted into the air and hits the hard slope from a height of several meters. Rescuers fly the Canadian to the hospital, where doctors briefly put him in an artificial coma. The Austrian head coach Marko Pfeifer said as an eyewitness that the accident was “one of the worst things I have ever seen”. It's been almost a month since Thompson's training crash at the end of November in Beaver Creek, and the athlete is feeling better again. He was not wearing an airbag on the day of the accident.

This will no longer happen next year. For the 2024/25 season, the world association FIS will make wearing a special airbag under the ski suit mandatory for women and men in super-G and downhill. Explaining the new rule, a spokeswoman said airbags “have proven to be a valuable measure to increase the safety of athletes in speed racing.” Brixen men's race director Markus Waldner said Thompson's fall would have been less severe with an airbag.

Help or danger?

So is everyone happy about the FIS safety regulations from the coming season? Not at all! Many drivers and supervisors are uncertain and incomprehensible about the world association's decision. Many people find the special vest with the inflatable air chambers impractical when racing. Some people doubt that the airbag really protects them. Some fear that the high-tech equipment actually poses a danger.

“This is another typical FIS nonsense!” Wolfgang Maier, DSV sports director

“This is another typical FIS nonsense!” Wolfgang Maier, the sports director in the German Ski Association, recently complained and spoke of “actionism”. Similar to the sudden ban on fluorine waxes, which has caused great uncertainty in the World Cup since this winter, the airbag requirement could end in chaos.

FIS dissolves expert group

One person who knows the topic is Karl-Heinz Waibel, the national coach for science and technology at the DSV. Until recently, he was part of a FIS expert group in which he discussed the airbag together with other officials and ex-athletes such as Pernilla Wiberg and Marco Büchel. The group spoke out against mandatory airbags. “There is no need for an airbag against serious back injuries; back protectors have been doing a good job since the 90s,” explained Waibel. In his opinion, the airbag could perhaps protect against bruises. “But no ski racer complains about upper body bruises.”

“I didn’t have a good feeling anymore.” Romed Baumann

Waibel emphasized that he was not fundamentally against the airbag. But research and development is much more important when it comes to preventing serious knee injuries, the biggest concern in skiing. Waibel called the airbag a “trivial matter”. The FIS ignored the experts' assessment - and recently quietly and secretly dissolved the group.

For years, Matthias Mayer raced with an airbag under his ski suit. © AFP / CHRISTOF STACHE

So is the airbag almost useless? Or even more serious: is it even dangerous? In recent years, some athletes - such as Austria's Olympic champion Matthias Mayer and the German downhill skier Manuel Schmid - suffered noticeable vertebral injuries in falls in which the airbag was deployed. In official letters to the FIS, the manufacturers deny responsibility for such injuries.

Few drivers trust the airbag

But the mistrust grew. The German veteran Romed Baumann, for example, drove with an airbag for seven years, but after his teammate Schmid was injured in the summer of 2021, he put it aside again. “I no longer had a good feeling,” said Baumann. In the German alpine men's team, only the youngsters Luis Vogt and Jacob as well as Thomas Dreßen currently use the airbag - it can be assumed that the ex-Kitzbühel winner Dreßen dislocated both shoulders in a racing fall at the beginning of 2020 due to the force of the airbag airbags that inflate at lightning speed.

Even top stars like the Norwegian Aleksander Aamodt Kilde or Dominik Paris from Ulten don't put on an airbag when they take part in the downhill run on Thursday and the Super-G on Friday (11.30:XNUMX a.m. each) in Bormio on one of the iciest, most difficult and most dangerous slopes in the world Compete in the World Cup calendar.

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