When I started skiing in 1970, the buzz was all about the new safety bindings. Debates raged in magazines and ski shops over which binding was the best as in the safest. After years of skiing being perceived as dangerous because of the incidence of broken legs, a new era had arrived with the introduction of a generation of sophisticated bindings. This created the perception that it was finally safe to go out play on the ski hills. But as the sound of snapping leg bones faded into the background it was replaced by an even grimmer sound; the popping of knee ligaments, in particular, torn ACLs. Before the introduction of the rigid plastic ski boot, few skiers had ever heard of an ACL. That was about to change.
It was about the time that I started working with National Ski Team members in 1977 that I began to hear of racers suffering knee injuries. Knee injuries seemed to start with a trickle. I can’t even recall hearing of a recreational skier suffering one. Like most skiers, I believed that the new bindings had addressed the injury issue. Even after knee injuries started to increase in frequency I thought it only a matter of time before refinements would be made to ski bindings and that this would be the end of them. As the popping of ligaments got more frequent, panic seemed to set in in the industry. Skiing had entered a period of vigorous growth. The last thing it needed was a good news, bad news story as in, “The good news is that the rigid plastic boot has made skiing easier. Now for the bad news…..”. As best I can recall, it was around 1980 that a team of spanish orthopaedic surgeons published a study linking the introduction of the rigid plastic boot to knee injuries noting that the incidence appeared to be rising in lock-step with sales of the boot. A classic problem-solving strategy is to go back to the time when a problem first emerged and look for anything that changed. In this case, the most significant change was in the boot. Meantime, those with expertise in biomechanics were pointing out that by stiffening the ankle the boot was sending the forces of skiing upward to the relatively weak knee.
In retrospect, it seemed like it should have been obvious that encasing the foot within what amounts to an orthopedic splint would act to transfer force up the leg. It’s ironic, if not erroneous, that the industry, even today, talks about the boot transferring energy to the ski as if this were the end game of skiing. The reality is that unless the ski industry has repealed Newton’s Third Law (which is doubtful), if a skier were to transfer energy to anything through the boot it would be through the stack of equipment between the sole of the boot to the source of Ground (or Snow) Reaction Force at the snow. This being the case, according Newton’s Third Law which states; “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, the snow will transfer an equal amount of energy through the stack of equipment back up the skier’s leg to the knee. The issues are way more complex than a simple transfer of energy. But I will start with the simple and obvious then build from here.
The question is, “Given the established reputation of skiing as being a dangerous sport prior to the introduction of the rigid plastic ski boot and the fact that skis attached to the foot and leg act as force multipliers, did anyone consider the implications of trying to immobilize the foot and leg within a rigid plastic ski boot?”