VAL GARDENA, Italy (AP) — In less than a tenth of a second, safety in ski racing took a huge leap forward Saturday.
That was the time it took for a radical air bag system to inflate and apparently prevent Olympic champion Matthias Mayer from serious injury during a nasty crash at the classic Val Gardena World Cup downhill.
Mayer was having a solid run down the Saslong course until the Austrian lost control and spun around, flying down the hill backward in midair.
Before he landed on his right side in an impact that appeared very hard to the naked eye, the air bag vest under his race suit inflated and softened his landing.
“A crash can never be something favorable,” International Ski Federation (FIS) technical expert Gunter Hujara said. “(But) maybe we have seen here he was saved from a spine injury today.”
After receiving medical attention on the slope, Mayer still was airlifted to a hospital in Bolzano.
The Austrian team said late Saturday that Mayer fractured a vertebra and will likely be sidelined for only a month. He will be transferred to Innsbruck for more exams.
“It proved the air bag has an important place in speed skiing,” Austrian winter sports federation director Hans Pum said.
Organizers said Mayer initially had trouble breathing but Hujara spoke to Mayer on the slope and said the breathing problem was not due to the air bag.
It marked the first time that an air bag inflated during a World Cup race.
The system has been in development by Italian manufacturer Dainese and the FIS for years and a handful of athletes only started wearing it during races recently.
“It’s always tough to know what the injury would be like otherwise,” Canadian skier Erik Guay said. “But it’s been quite a few years in development and it’s great that it works when it’s supposed to.”
Mayer had actually already been involved in an air bag crash when he fell during training in October on the Pitztaler glacier, injuring both legs slightly. And teammate Hannes Reichelt had the system activated while inspecting a course for a training run in Copper Mountain, Colo., earlier this season.
Another air bag system developed by French manufacturer In&Motion has also been approved by the FIS, and a similar system has been in use in motorcycle racing since 2009.
In motorcycle racing, the air bag system inflates when the body leaves the bike with a forward rotation. In skiing, the moment when a racer loses complete control varies from one skier to another.
Dainese collected information from skiers by lodging special chips in their back protectors that record speed, angular rotation, acceleration and other information.
“The algorithm describes the moment when the athlete is no longer able to avoid the crash,” Hujara said.
Overall World Cup leader Aksel Lund Svindal has been testing the system in training but doesn’t race with it yet because it’s too bulky under his suit.
“I already broke one downhill suit this year when the zipper popped open,” Svindal said. “With the extra material from the air bag the zipper’s not good enough so I don’t want to stretch it too much.”
Still, Svindal welcomed the initiative.
“That’s what everyone wants to see — a big crash where you stand up and you’re good again and you can wave at the crowd instead of being transported off to hospital,” he said after winning Saturday’s race.
The current air bag protects only the shoulder, neck, back and chest areas. Dainese and the FIS are working on a system to protect the knees and hips, too.
When the air bag inflated for Reichelt during inspection, it prompted concern that it happened when it wasn’t supposed to.
After all, nobody wants to turn into the Michelin Man while hurtling themselves down the mountain at more than 100 kpm (more than 60 mph).
Dainese’s Marco Pastore said the system worked as it was supposed to for Reichelt and prevented a shoulder injury.
Hujara also sought to calm concern over premature inflations, noting that out of eight sensors, five must be over a certain limit for activation to occur.
“The athlete may feel he is still able to (recover) but his body is already in a condition where the computer tells the system, ‘OK, now go,'” Hujara said. “It’s much better that it inflates one time too early than one time too late.”
Another worry has been aerodynamics but wind tunnel testing has shown that it’s just as fast, or perhaps even faster, than skiers’ usual back protectors — which the vests connect to.
Also new in skiing safety: protective long underwear that can’t be cut. That would come in handy for parallel races where skiers often crash into each other and get cut by knife-sharp ski edges.
“It’s on the market,” Hujara said of the textile material. “Athletes know it since four years and every year we remind them, ‘Please use it.'”
While neither the air bag system nor protective underwear are mandatory, the FIS hopes that all World Cup racers will use them.
“We can only advise the athletes and (say), ‘Look, this is what we have. This is what we developed for you. Now think about it,'” Hujara said.