In a practice run before today’s snowboarding halfpipe event, Olympic contender Danny Davis called the course "garbage," bemoaning steep vertical angles and rough floor between the pipe’s walls. "When you see every other person fall, you know something's wrong," agreed 2006 snowboarding gold medalist Hannah Teter.
It's hardly the first time a halfpipe in snow has given athletes trouble, and in some cases, athletes have sustained severe or even fatal injuries. In 2009, four-time Winter X Games medalist Kevin Pearce attempted a snowboarding trick called a cab double cork in a Salt Lake City halfpipe. On the way down he struck his head, sustaining career-ending traumatic brain damage. On the same course in 2012, Canadian freestyle skier and superpipe pioneer Sarah Burke also fell onto her head. Moments later she went into cardiac arrest due to tearing her vertebral artery. She died nine days later.
Yet, to hear people in the industry tell it, the halfpipe has actually gotten safer over the years. As this young sport has progressed, competitive-level halfpipes have evolved to allow the individual artistry elite athletes crave, while smoothing out the bumps that lead to routine injuries.
Introduced to the Winter Games in 1998, the Olympic halfpipe is a relatively new course. The International Ski Federation, skiing and snowboarding’s governing body, has endeavored to balance safety with spectacle and athletic ambition, a common struggle in any sport where athletes come nose-to-nose with the laws of physics, (think sailing, luge, or F1 racing).
In winter sports, the bigger the halfpipe, the more elaborate (and dangerous) the tricks you can do. As a result, skiers and snowboarders obsessed with "progressing" their sport have sought out deeper pipes over the past decade. In the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the halfpipe was 11.5 feet tall and 49 feet wide. In Sochi, it's almost twice as tall—22 feet—and 66 feet wide.
Data on halfpipe injuries at the elite level is not available, but U.S. Snowboarding Halfpipe Coach Rick Bower believes halfpipe design has improved significantly from when he competed in Nagano. "The halfpipe itself is way more safe than it used to be," Bower tells Co.Design. "The tricks the riders are doing are what’s making it more dangerous."
The snowboarding halfpipes of the late '90s were simply skateboarding halfpipes rendered in snow. Originally formed by hand, they reached about 10 feet tall, and featured a wide, flat bottom between the transitions—those curved edges that launch a boarder into flight.
"As the sport progressed we realized that the effective edge of snowboards and skis is much longer than a skateboard wheelbase," says Chris Gunnarson, owner of Snow Park Technologies, which designs and builds the superpipes used at the Winter X Games. On the first halfpipes, snowboarders struggled to negotiate steep, sharp transitions.
Each transition was essentially an impact—energy that would compress into the rider’s knees like a loaded spring. By the time a rider would reach the top of the transition, he would have a very difficult time containing that energy. Many boarders would spring their knees out from an 85-degree angle, then fall back on the snow floor in the middle of the halfpipe.
"That’s how I tore my ACL," Bower tells us. "We all blew our knees out on those things, because it was jarring and quick, and I'd say more dangerous."
Over the years, the halfpipe has evolved into an industry standard superpipe. The product evolved around the users’ wants and needs, and it will continue to do so, Gunnarson says. "Just because the pipe has grown over the past 20 years, doesn't mean that this is the way things will keep going. It really just depends on what the riders are asking for, and what sort of feature will give them the best opportunity to perform at the highest level."
Manufacturing has improved as well. Companies such as Zaugg have designed snow groomers built solely to carve out superpipes, creating more consistency between tracks worldwide than was possible when they were shaped by hand.
All of these improvements have culminated in a more predictable, smoother ride that drives today’s athletes to push the limits on speed, height, and stunts. The Sochi pipe’s specifications, as IOC sports director Christophe Dubi said in a Monday press conference addressing athlete complaints, "have been tested, tested a number of times." That’s why riders are so vexed that the Sochi pipe is a bumpy ride—poor maintenance and near 60 degree temperatures in the Olympic district are outside the course designers’ control.
"The tricks have progressed to where it’s not just that you’re going to get hurt—it’s like Luke [Mitrani, an Olympic hopeful] did this summer, he broke his neck," Bower says. "But I think, how rarely those events happen speaks to the professionalism of our athletes. They really are rare."