At the climax of everyone’s favorite bobsleigh-based film, 1993’s “Cool Runnings,” disaster strikes the upstart Jamaican team when its ricketty sled flips over during the final race. Everyone from Calgary to Jamaica fears the worst — but the teammates shake off the wreck, determined to finish the race. Together, they hoist up the sled on their shoulders, carrying it over the finish line. Cue that inspirational slow clap.
It was a real thing that actually happened … well, aside from a few bits of artistic license. (For instance, they never carried the sled; the fact that all four racers walked away from the crash at all was remarkable enough, given how it looked in slow motion.) But one of bobsledding’s most iconic moments was also a total rarity. As far as Winter Olympic sports go, bobsled has one of the lowest rates of in-race mishaps, with racers completing roughly 95 percent of their runs. In other sports, by contrast, finishes aren’t anywhere near as guaranteed — we’re looking at you, Alpine skiing.
To measure how often a run goes awry, we grabbed data from Sports-Reference.com’s Olympics site going back to 19941 for events in nine timed sports: skiing (Alpine and cross-country), skeleton, luge, bobsled, speedskating (short and long track), biathlon and Nordic combined. For each event, we tracked how often it ended in a DNF — “did not finish” — or a disqualification.
To be sure, not every DNF or DQ represents a crash like the Jamaicans suffered in 1988.2 For example, in skeleton (you know, the one where you slide face-first down an icy track at stomach-churning speeds), the only DNF or DQ happened not on the course but when Canadian racer Mike Douglas was late for a pre-race inspection.3 But DNFs and DQs do usually correlate with the difficulty in staying on course and avoiding spills, missed gates or other sources of misfortune.
Since 1994, these are the winter sports with the lowest (and highest) rates of DNFs and DQs among the timed events in our data:
In addition to skeleton and bobsled, luge is another sport that seems prone to disaster, with its high speeds and steeply banked turns. However, roughly 96 percent of competitors end up finishing their runs unscathed, an even better rate than bobsledding can claim.4 Short track speedskating, by comparison, has a more deserved reputation for mayhem, with nearly 9 percent of runs ending prematurely — though the list of offenses that can get you disqualified from a race is fairly lengthy. On the short track, crashes and chaos are features that add to the excitement.
But the undisputed king of ending athletes’ races prematurely — and thus dashing gold-medal dreams — is Alpine skiing. Since 1994, nearly a third of all ski runs have ended without the racer actually crossing the finish line. And the breakdown within the sport varies pretty heavily by event:
Perhaps surprisingly, the lightning-fast downhill discipline has skiing’s lowest rate of incidents, with only about 10 percent of runs going unfinished. That number would still be higher than any of the sports we looked at above, but it’s low compared with other familiar high-speed activities such as NASCAR (where 16 percent of individual races ended in a DNF last season) or Formula 1 (24 percent). Downhill takes tremendous speed, skill and courage, and we’ve all seen what can go wrong when a racer makes a mistake, but those moments are still rather few and far between by Alpine standards.
DNFs and DQs become much more common, however, in disciplines featuring tighter turns and more gates — those pesky markers that a skier must navigate around to complete the course. Whatever the discipline, failing to send the tips of your skis (plus boots) inside of a gate will get you disqualified from the race.
In the super giant slalom (or “super-G”), racers gather speeds comparable to those seen in downhill, but they also must make sharper cuts around more gates, which are bunched more closely together. (They also aren’t allowed practice sessions beforehand, which doesn’t help matters.) Between the men and women, only about 78 percent of Olympic super-G runs are completed cleanly.
And super-G is not considered a “technical” skiing event. Giant slalom is, and it involves even more gates and more side-to-side turning. Since 1994, a third of Olympic giant slalom runs ended in DNF or DQ. But the ultimate tough-to-finish Alpine discipline is the standard slalom, with skiers zigzagging back and forth across the slope around pylon-like gates in rapid succession. Almost 50 percent of slalom runs fail to cross the finish line, a testament to the perfection required to clear every gate at world-class speed.
Nothing in slalom is guaranteed. For instance, even in successful runs like the one that clinched the gold medal for the great U.S. racer Mikaela Shiffrin at the 2014 Olympics, disaster is always lurking around the next gate: At one point midrace, Shiffrin’s left ski lost contact with the ground, requiring an expert recovery to avert a missed gate — or worse.
Again, not every DNF or DQ is a crash, and research has shown that per-run injury rates are still highest in the speed disciplines (downhill and super-G) versus the technical ones (giant slalom and slalom). This jibes with common sense: Although it’s easy to get disqualified for missing a gate in slalom, those miscues don’t always result in terrifying crashes. Making a mistake at the speeds involved in downhill, on the other hand, can have more devastating consequences.
All of this is worth keeping in mind while watching Olympic races over the next few weeks. Some of the most seemingly terrifying sports can actually rank among the lowest in terms of on-course incident rates — although what few mishaps there are tend to be quite dangerous. Meanwhile, anything can happen in the most technical skiing events. As it turns out, hurriedly weaving down an icy slope on skis is difficult to do without skipping a gate or crashing. Who knew?
— Ella Koeze contributed research.