In Good Conscience

Lindsey Vonn's long injury list on a knee-to-know basis

In the rundown to the Pyeongchang Winter Games, the American Alpine ski "phenom" Lindsey Vonn said on CBS television that she had crashed so many times, broken so many bones, she was banking on advances in medical science to spare her a crippled middle age.

In the skating arena, where 15-year-old Alina Zagitova became the ice dancing queen, the president of US Figure Skating said he knew why America had fallen (literally) so far behind the Russians. He blamed lack of a Moscow-style central training system, lack of time on the ice, and too liberal an attitude towards pushing girls through puberty.

These Games have not been the extension of Russia v America soft war that much of the United States media would have us believe. Norway, Germany and Canada are above them in the medals table.

But, remember, we are not supposed to refer to Zagitova, or the silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva, as representing Russia.

We must use the contrived description "Olympic Athletes from Russia" to get around the fact that the country is officially barred from competing because of systemic doping.

But let us skate around that nonsense.

Let us instead ask about the human joy, and cost, of where sports at this level might lead.

Her story is either exceptionally brave, or foolhardy. It isn't over yet, but we hope, for her sake, that Vonn has been airlifted, broken, off a mountain for the last time.

Vonn was taught to ski by her grandfather when she was two and was competing in the world's most formidable downhill events before she was 16.

Her family moved to the mountains to support her childhood compulsion. Now 33, she has won more races than any other downhill skier, male or female.

She is marketed as the face of skiing in the US - promoting Beats by Dre headphones, Rolex, Oakley, Hershey, Procter & Gamble, GoPro, Under Armour and Red Bull.

Her reported US$6 million (S$7.9 million) fortune is invested in homes in Colorado and Hollywood. Married, divorced, then briefly in a relationship with Tiger Woods, Vonn is staring down the barrel of what to do with the rest of her life.

The legacy of crushing arms, back, knees, ankles, pushing beyond the limits of control litter virtually every season of her career. Her story is either exceptionally brave, or foolhardy.

It isn't over yet, but we hope, for her sake, that Vonn has been airlifted, broken, off a mountain for the last time. Then, whatever she finds to replace the competitive compulsion, there is the aftermath of fame and glory.

On CBS' 60 Minutes Sports she said her dad suggested after her second knee reconstruction that she call it a day, or was going to be crippled.

"Well then," she said, "I will be crippled. I don't care. I mean, I'm banking that medical science will be at a stage when I'm done skiing they will just come up with something to fix my knee. I'm fine with that. I will use my body to the best of my ability until it can no longer function."

It is, of course, her life, her body, her choice. I shudder, however, thinking of former champions, male and female, paying a prolonged, painful, arthritic price for their former glory.

With that in mind, America's figure skating decline might not be so bad after all.

The head of the sport in America, Samuel Auxier, makes it sound like an overly protective society that has held back a generation of youngsters, bordering on health and safety interference.

He laments that, before his time in office, officials prohibited youngsters from practising, or even attempting triple jumps because of the possibility of injury.

Auxier has a point. In Russia, in the former East Germany, no doubt in China, the state would provide the facility, the medicine, and whatever it takes to push children to breaking point for the sake of medals.

The parental push in the west can also do harm. When Vonn's father asks her to consider the physical consequences near to her journey's end, maybe it is too late.

And if I read Auxier right, I suspect that his predecessors were more right than he is.

Quite possibly, they and forward-thinking administrators around the world conclude that the Russian system that is prepared to break thousands of children for a few hundred medals, is neither in the Olympic spirit nor in the interests of physical and mental well-being.

There must be a middle ground that sets parameters at exploring prowess without self-destruction.

After the podium on Thursday, Medvedeva spoke of the Russia regimen.

"Every competition," she said, "is a little war."

In every war, there are casualties.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2018, with the headline 'Vonn's long injury list strictly on a knee-to-know basis'. Print Edition | Subscribe