VAL GARDENA, Italy — When overall World Cup leader Aksel Lund Svindal and downhill world champion Erik Guay speed down the tricky Saslong course this weekend, they will be collecting data for a groundbreaking air bag system that could have a big impact on skiing safety.
The World Cup circuit has been plagued by a series of life-threatening injuries in recent seasons, prompting the International Ski Federation to team with Italian manufacturer Dainese to adapt an air bag system that has been used in motorcycle racing since 2009.
FIS is allowing Dainese to outfit 10 athletes that it sponsors this week with special chips lodged in their back protectors that will record speed, angular rotation, acceleration and other information.
"We're just starting to collect data at this point," said Alessandro Bellatti, the Dainese engineer coordinating the project. "It's a more difficult project than the one for MotoGP, but we're fairly confident we can come up with something for most of the serious crashes."
In motorcycle racing, the air bag inflates when the body leaves the bike with a forward rotation, whereas in skiing the exact moment when a racer loses complete control is more difficult to ascertain.
Finding the exact algorithm to determine that point of no return is a major challenge, but Dainese is confident it can come up with a working product for the 2013-14 season — in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
"The problem is that whereas in MotoGP we can gather data from 1,000 laps from 10 drivers in a single weekend, with skiing we only get 40 runs to work with," Bellatti said as he watched racers charge down the hill.
Dainese will continue its research at most of the downhill races this season.
"Alessandro is a smart guy," Svindal said. "He's got some crazy algorithms going on in his computer, so he definitely knows what he's doing. But it's fairly complicated.
"In a motorbike it was probably easier to rule out what is not possible. Like if the body is in this position it's over," Svindal added, turning his head nearly upside down. "I think for us, looking at some of the still photos around with gnarly positions, it could be a tough challenge."
Other athletes wearing the chips include super-G world champion Christof Innerhofer of Italy, Jan Hudec of Canada and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway.
The chips are turned on by connecting two wires coming out of the back protectors.
"It looks like two shoelaces sticking out of the back, and they come around front and you connect them, a light goes off, tuck it back in and away you go," Guay said.
If only avoiding crashes were so easy.
In 2008, American downhiller Scott Macartney suffered brain injuries and was kept in an induced coma after losing control and smashing his head on the final jump of the treacherous Streif course in Kitzbuehel, Austria. The next year, Daniel Albrecht of Switzerland suffered life-threatening brain and lung injuries after a crash in the exact same spot.
Hans Grugger is still working his way back from yet another horrific crash in Kitzbuehel in downhill training last season, while Austrian teammate Matthias Lanzinger had his left lower leg amputated three years ago after crashing in Kvitfjell, Norway.
And those are only the worst crashes. Each season, numerous racers suffer mild concussions and the list of torn knees is seemingly endless.
Three-time overall World Cup winner Lindsey Vonn had to pull out midway through last season's world championships after injuring her head slightly in training and American downhiller Marco Sullivan missed the second half of last season after a similar fall.
Sullivan and other racers would like to see the development of safer helmets.
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