No airbags for skiers at Sochi Olympics

Italian safety equipment manufacturer Dainese presents the "D Air SKI airbag" protection vest during a press conference in Kitzbuehel, Austria on January 23, 2014

Racers will not be kitted out with airbags for next month's Sochi Olympics as testing continues into the latest prototype presented by Italian company Dainese. Alpine skiing's governing body, the FIS, is hoping to introduce the airbags in a bid to increase safety in a sport that enjoys its fair share of high-speed crashes. But Gunther Hujara, FIS chief race director for men's alpine skiing, said Thursday that the system was not quite ready for a mass roll-out despite the prototype having been used in training runs on the World Cup circuit this season. "The D-Air System seems to be almost ready now, we did some last tests recently and we had a meeting with the coaches in Val Gardena where the latest prototype was presented," Hujara said. "We are very happy as it now seems to be the right time to present it to the world as something that might work in ski racing." The FIS has been working with Dainese, which specialises in protective wear for sports such as motorcycling and mountain biking, for more than three years to investigate the potential application of airbag technology for top-level skiers. But there remains a huge difference between motorcycling and ski crashes, and much research has been conducted on finding the trigger, or algorithim, that defines when a skier is no longer capable of handling forces which drive him into a position where he can no longer control himself or his material. "The most difficult thing was defining the algorithm and finding the exact moment when an athlete is no longer in control and is no longer able to control the situation," Hujara said. "We installed the data collecting system in our training runs and at the end this was very helpful as we got a clearer idea of what really happens during an alpine ski racing run." The airbag designed by Dainese deploys in 100 milliseconds from the start of an accident and offers protection to the chest, shoulders and collarbones, development strategic manager Vittorio Cafaggi adding that that it can absorb up to 61 percent of the force of impact. The system has been developed using a raft of high-profile skiers from the Italian and Canadian ski teams, including Werner Heel, Jan Hudec and Manuel Osborne-Paradis. Dainese claim the algorithm now understands when a skier is jumping, "thus avoiding any risk of misinterpreting the landing after a jump as an accident". "This calibration of the system is a work in progress and the system's ability to distinguish between a fall and normal conditions will continue to be refined even further." Data has been collected from 238 descents and 700 minutes of research. Tellingly, Dainese said that in 333 crashes in MotoGP, Moto 2 and Moto 3 races involving riders equipped with similar airbags, none sustained injuries to the protected areas. "We're quite sure that we are close to the moment when we can allow to use it during competition," said Hujara.