SANTA CATERINA VALFURVA, ITALY — Ten days after the spectacular crash of Olympic downhill champion Matthias Mayer, there is still debate within the close-knit World Cup skiing circuit over whether a radical safety air bag system prevented the Austrian from more serious injury.
Having come away with two broken vertebrae, did the air bag inflation — it was the first time it was activated in a World Cup race — possibly prevent Mayer from a life-damaging spinal injury, as the Austrian team, manufacturer Dainese and the International Ski Federation immediately intimated?
Or did the air bag create a fulcrum around which Mayer's back was broken?
"That's a really hard call to make," said two-time overall World Cup champion Aksel Lund Svindal, who is sponsored by Dainese. "I have a hard time seeing that it hurt him but I also have a hard time seeing that it helped a lot. ... In that crash I would say his back protection probably did 95 percent and the air bag 5 percent."
In one of the fastest sections of the Val Gardena downhill, Mayer lost control and spun around, flying down the hill backward in mid-air. Before he landed on his right side, the air bag vest under his race suit inflated.
After collecting data from the air bag's "black box," Dainese reported that Mayer's speed at initial impact with the snow was 109 kph (68 mph), generating up to 13 G's of force — similar to what a pilot experiences in a fighter jet.
Mayer suffered two serious impacts. He landed hard on his right hip and side then bounced back into the air with his body rotating and slammed back down on the ground, hitting the back of his helmet and putting his left shoulder in an awkward position.
"It's really unfortunate racers are being used as crash test dummies to experiment with an unproven airbag system," Ted Ligety, the Olympic giant slalom champion from the United States, wrote in a controversial Facebook post the day after the crash. "It looks to me like the airbag acted as a fulcrum for his back to break around."
Ligety's posting prompted a clarification from Dainese.
"The problem is he's talking without knowing our air bag," said Marco Pastore of Dainese's athlete sponsoring division. "It doesn't inflate on the back. It's not in the back protector."
The air bag inflates only in the chest, side and shoulder areas. The system is activated using a complicated algorithm that determines when racers can no longer regain control. Up to nine sensors recording speed, angular rotation, acceleration, and other information each must exceed the set limit to trigger activation.
Inflation occurs in less than a tenth of a second.
Pastore cited the "huge impact" and consequent back compression as the cause of Mayer's injury.
"But that's something where the air bag doesn't have any impact," Pastore said. "The compression means that there is a strong impact where all the forces are involved. And in a very short time these forces are released because of the rebound and that's probably what caused the fractured vertebrae."
Asked to expand his thoughts expressed on Facebook, Ligety maintained that the air bag's inflation prompted Mayer's back to flex "too much in a small area, which is caused by the fulcrum of the air bag."
"If you're having something that comes out to have support you need to support the whole system otherwise your create a pressure point," Ligety told The Associated Press. "It needs to go across the whole back if it's going to be something that's beneficial. It can't just go in one spot.
"How can you say it's safer when the guy badly broke two vertebrae and almost was paralyzed?" Ligety added. "So to say it saved him is just completely false. ... That is a horrible accident. I would be surprised if that's not career-ending — which is a shame."
Ligety, it should be noted, has his own protection company named Slytech, so he's addressing the issue both from an athlete's and a manufacturer's standpoint.
"Yeah I'm coming at it from both ways," Ligety acknowledged. "But I come at it because everybody says, 'Oh it saved his life."'
Still, Mayer did not have life-threatening head and brain injuries to the extent suffered by American downhiller Scott Macartney, Hans Grugger and Swiss standout Daniel Albrecht in crashes between 2008 and 2009.
"You see now how the discussion is going on. It opened but he still had an injury," FIS technical expert Gunter Hujara said. "We took the right step on this but we are at the beginning."
FIS and Dainese point out that the air bags are not mandatory. While the systems are available to all World Cup racers, only a handful of athletes have worn them in races.
"Ted is jumping the gun quite hard," Norwegian skier Kjetil Jansrud said. "FIS is not using us as test rabbits or crash test dummies. I mean Dainese is a private company and Mayer (used) it as his free will."
More details from the crash should come Wednesday when Mayer and the surgeon who operated on him hold a news conference at a hospital in Innsbruck.
Svindal, meanwhile, has taken the air bag discussion as an opportunity to advocate for racing suits that are up to a centimeter thicker than the current ones.
"You might go half a second slower," Svindal said, "but if it's the same for everyone then all of a sudden we have a whole new situation where the whole suit is made into a protective device."