uch as Sydney will go down in history as the Doping Olympics, this week's US Figure Skating Championships in Boston are becoming known as the Orthopedically Impaired Nationals.
First to bow out was Deanna Stellato, the victim two weeks ago of a hip flexor injury. Then it became clear that Naomi Nari Nam wasn't in performance shape after last year's hip fracture. And Wednesday Sasha Cohen said she didn't want to risk skating with a stress fracture in her lower back.
It would be easy to dismiss those wounds as isolated events. But a closer look makes clear they're part of a deeply disturbing pattern.
Serious orthopedic injuries like those, especially in the hip, pelvis, and groin, ''have become rampant over the last decade'' among figure skaters, said Dr. Angela Smith, president-elect of the American College of Sports Medicine and a former nationally ranked skater. ''I would call it epidemic among two groups: boys doing quads and girls doing the most triple triples.
''Injuries always have been there but now they're much more likely to very seriously interfere with skaters' ability to train and perform. In the 1980s, we had knee and foot injuries, but now the spectrum has changed to ones that are more serious and take longer to get over.''
While some skating enthusiasts worry that all the attention to injuries will discourage young athletes from taking up the sport, the top doctor at the US Figure Skating Association said it ultimately could prove a good thing for skating and skaters. ''It brings out the idea that it's happening in all our youth sports, from soccer to baseball,'' said Dr. Mahlon Bradley, whose practice is in Salem but has a base of operations this week at the FleetCenter.
''We can't continue to have them do all the things they're doing all year long,'' Bradley added. ''Coaches and families and athletes are learning these young people aren't invincible.''
To understand the recent rash of fractures and tears it helps to consider how skating has changed over the last 30 years. Skaters often participated in other sports during other seasons. And they seldom did the kinds of jumping, spinning, dipping, and other highly technical, high-impact acrobatics that have become routine.
Flash forward to today. Female skaters are doing endless repetitions of back-to-back triple jumps without a step in between, which means no time to regain their footing and no cushioning as they absorb forces many times their body weight on a single joint like the hip. Their male counterparts are going them one better with quads, or four-revolution jumps. All that pressing and straining for the boys means beating up their hips and groins, while for the girls it is their hips and the growth plates around the pelvis that take the worst pounding.
Another anachronism is the three-sport athlete. Today, more and more skaters skate year-round, if only to keep up with their equally single-minded rivals. Late spring is the only season when there aren't scheduled competitions, and even then there are skating tours and grueling individualized training regimens to complete. All for the love of the sport, the attention, or the ever-fatter purses.
The result: The disabled list is becoming almost as long as the list of competitors. And many entries this week are the walking wounded, skating with aches and pains that would sideline lesser competitors. That is true of Michael Weiss (broken toe and balky back), Tim Goebel (aching knee), and Michelle Kwan (lower back pain).
''I've been pretty lucky with injuries,'' said the ever-slender Kwan. ''I can see a point where you don't know how hard to push yourself.''
Her coach, Frank Carroll, said the lessons adults impart often are confusing for young athletes: ''We try to teach these kids not to be wimps. But you have to decide between telling them, `Don't be a wimp' and `Hey, you're on the borderline of getting hurt. You better back off.'
''A lot of the time they don't want to hear it. They want to make the Olympic team. They want to skate, skate, skate, jump, jump, jump.''
Making the Olympic team these days, given the rash of injuries afflicting top figure skaters, is only partly a result of having the range and depth of skills Kwan has. ''As important as talent is the ability to cope with and survive injuries,'' said Westford-based sports medicine specialist Dr. David Watson.
None of this is unique to skating, of course. The frequency and severity of injuries soared among runners when they began training longer and harder, and among gymnasts, swimmers, and most other serious competitors who started competing year-round in just a single sport. And the kinds of injuries skaters get generally aren't life-threatening, or even close to it, although they are painful and can be career-stopping.
What can be done?
One thing is to ''get out the message that more is not necessarily better in a growing kid,'' said Dr. Lyle Micheli, head of sports medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston who is overseeing the 120 medical volunteers at this week's skating competition. ''If we were doing our job right, these overuse injuries never would happen.''
Another critical step, said veteran coach Donald Laws, is to get judges to pay more attention to the overall quality of skating and less to jumps and other difficult maneuvers. ''We really need to get all the coaches and officials on the same page to attend to our athletes,'' said Laws, who coached Scott Hamilton to four US and four world titles, along with an Olympic gold.
John Nicks, who has been coaching for 40 years and this week watched his skaters Nam and Cohen bow out with injuries, agreed that changing the rules is critical. But he also said coaches and trainers have to adjust their thinking.
''The art,'' he said, ''is to draw that fine line in instructing an athlete about the extreme difficulty of the competition while at the same time being very concerned about their health and well-being. We draw that line with great difficulty, and aren't sure where it is sometimes.''
John Powers of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.