Hard Knocks: Determination can get in the way of health judgement at the Games

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Max Parrot

Bronze medalist Mark McMorris of Canada, left, and silver medalist Max Parrot of Canada celebrate following the men’s snowboard slopestyle final at the Phoenix Snow Park at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — There is no quiet room at the bottom of the Olympic slopestyle course.

There is no time for a full examination to determine whether a snowboarder or skier may have suffered a head injury.

Either you’re in and it’s game on, or you’re out and the doctors take over. Making things more difficult is there’s no way of knowing whether concussion symptoms have yet to surface.

The only certainty at the Winter Olympics is that competitors desperately want to get on the podium. And it sometimes can be a challenging task to save them from themselves.

Look no further than Canadian snowboarder Max Parrot, who fell hard twice in Sunday’s slopestyle final at Phoenix Park — his helmet smacking the hard-packed snow in both crashes — before winning a silver medal on his third run.

Parrot was willing to take the risk.

“After each run (the doctor) wanted to check, I refused and did my own thing,” Parrot said the next day. “I stayed focused on what I had to do to achieve my goal, which I did. Today my neck is a bit sore. I’ve had concussions in the past. I know what it feels like.

“I think I can know by myself if I am ready or not to snowboard. The doctor is good if you’re not sure, but I was certain I was good so I did no go through the protocol.”

The problem, said Dr. Charles Tator, is that athletes may not realize that head trauma effects don’t always present themselves right away.

“They are so eager and pumped up that they don’t want to stop,” said Tator, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Canadian Concussion Centre. “But in addition to that we are faced with the fact that some of the symptoms of concussion have what we call a latent period, which means that all of the symptoms may not be there right after the crash, not even a few minutes after the crash.

“Sometimes it takes a few hours for the symptoms to come forth and that is a big problem in the concussion world.”

Tator said a quick examination could be performed in about 10 minutes. But in an ideal situation, it would be away from the action and a doctor would have the athlete’s full attention to check memory, orientation, balance, and perform a brief neurological exam.

Even after that, Tator noted, it would still be a judgement call.

In the slopestyle final, snowboarders had to wait about 30 minutes between runs.

“The adrenalin is pumping and the endorphins are pumping, those chemicals that the brain itself produces can mask symptoms of concussion,” Tator said from Toronto. “That is what we run into. It’s not just the professionals who want to keep going but in my experience the amateurs — especially at higher levels of competition, and the Olympics is the highest level — they don’t want to back off.

“It really can be hard to determine if there has been a concussion.”

In both crashes, Parrot, from Bromont, Que., went down as he tried to land a jump. His back and head took the blunt of the blow both times.

Parrot did not show any obvious signs of injury and credited a carbon-fibre helmet that he designed for helping to protect him.

“Back up (at the top), the Canadian doctor, he wanted to see me, to check me,” Parrot said. “I’m a pretty stubborn guy and I was saying, ‘I’m fine.’ I wanted to watch the other guys on TV because I was still 100 per cent in contention and there was no way I was not going to compete.”

Team officials always say athlete safety is paramount and FIS, snowboarding’s governing body, noted there were several doctors on site during the slopestyle competition.

“There are team, FIS and local medical personnel on hand to evaluate any athlete presenting with an injury,” FIS communications manager Jenny Wiedeke said in an email. “After a diagnosis the next steps are taken as needed.”

Requests to speak with the Canadian Olympic team doctor and Canada Snowboard’s team doctor were declined.

“We’re currently focused on the success of our Team Canada athletes,” Canadian Olympic Committee communications director Photi Sotiropoulos said in an email. “For the time being we will not be doing any other interviews.”

Athlete safety and transparency issues have emerged as a talking point in the early going at the Pyeongchang Games.

Canadian snowboarder Laurie Blouin, who also won silver, went to hospital as a precaution last week after taking a significant knock to her head in a training run crash.

Despite several requests, neither the COC nor her federation would reveal injury details. A teammate later divulged some information but specifics on her injury weren’t confirmed until after her event.

Blouin, from Stoneham, Que., was wearing the damage in Monday’s final with a black eye and nicked cheek. Like Parrot, she was determined to return for a final run.

“I’m really stubborn,” she said. “I was like, ‘I want to compete. I will compete.”‘

In addition, many athletes felt high winds and blustery conditions on Monday should have forced a postponement of the women’s slopestyle.

Only a handful of competitors completed their full runs and most dialed back their jumps.

“I think it’s just a really big shame that the riders weren’t asked what we wanted to do today,” said Canadian snowboarder Spencer O’Brien. “Our safety and our opinion on how the conditions were wasn’t taken into consideration.”

Wiedeke said that a FIS jury makes the call on whether an event proceeds after open dialogue between the competition director, jury members and the teams.

A Canada Snowboard media attache said normally coaches talk to the athletes and take any concerns to a “connection coach” on the FIS jury, noting there were no objections when the decision was made.

Details on any discussions between athletes and coaches were not revealed.

With files from Canadian Press reporters Alexis Belanger-Champagne and Alexandre Geoffrion-McInnis

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