In the final chapter of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway writes: “Skiing was not the way it is now, the spiral fracture had not become common then, and no one could afford a broken leg. There were no ski patrols. Anything you ran down from, you had to climb up. That gave you legs that were fit to run down with.”
As motorized lifts carried less prepared people faster and with greater ease and comfort to higher and longer slopes, alpine skiing injuries became more frequent and serious. Similar patterns can be found in many other sports as technological advancements have taken participants to extremes their physical bodies were unprepared or unsuited for.
The classic but far from unique example is football. Improvements in helmets, mouth guards and face masks and the requirement of all three for head and face protection, encouraged coaches to teach and players to use blocking and tackling techniques that threatened their unprotected necks. Catastrophic spinal cord injuries spiked in the early 1970s. High school football rule makers countered with the prohibition of spearing in 1975, and then barring both butt-blocking and face tackling in 1976. Certification of helmets was required in 1980.
New technologies created poles that catapulted pole vaulters to unexpected heights in the late 1960s; and high school rule makers responded with new requirements for poles and landing pits in 1975. Risks of injuries and lawsuits were largely responsible for the pole vault being dropped at least temporarily from the schedule of events in some states.
The pursuit of profits by manufacturers and personal bests by athletes and their coaches will continue to push bodies to the extreme limits of what is safe; and rule makers will push back, often being labeled as out of date or out of step by those they are trying to protect.
Every four years the Olympics shine a spotlight on amazing dedication by athletes and alarming developments in equipment across the full spectrum of sports. We are watching the 2012 Summer Games in awe of the participants, but on alert that some of the products they are utilizing will help, but others will harm, our high school programs.
We need to be certain that those who arrive at the top of our mountains have the legs to run down safely.