The real risk in extreme sports

February 6, 2012

accident

The Vancouver Sun published on February 1st an op-ed piece about risk in extreme sports (click here for the article) that I wrote with Jeff Jackson, a professor in the Outdoor Adventure Program at Algonquin College in Pembroke, ON. Here are a few excerpts:

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It has been interesting to observe the amount of media coverage assigned to Sarah Burke’s crash while training on the superpipe in Park City, Utah, her hospitalization and subsequent death on Jan. 19. The accident was splashed on the front pages of newspapers and given considerable air time on the news or sports shows daily.

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Events such as this are an awful reminder that the risk so cavalierly discussed in the abstract is real and the consequences of it being realized can be fatal.

That Burke died is tragic, but not unimaginable.

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Spectators at home or on the slopes watch sports like downhill skiing or superpipe to see super fast speed or spectacular flips, twists and jumps. But we also can’t help but wonder and ask if the public and event organizers of extreme sports also secretly wish for crashes because it makes for great TV — just as long as the athlete walks away without severe injury.

But how can this qualification be made? Any sensible person should be aware that skiing at 150 km/h or hucking huge air on a six-metre superpipe must carry with it the risk that someone could get really wrecked.

So why do we act surprised? Maybe the collective, almost cathartic outpouring of grief in response to Burke’s death is a substitute for subconscious guilt at enabling this to happen.

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Extreme sport used to be the domain of the lunatic fringe. Those who participated had their own personal reasons for performing high-risk activities. Now, however, extreme sport has become mainstream and usurped by corporate interests giving rise to the X-Games and inclusion of high-risk sports in the Olympics. Some athletes are getting rich in the process. Snowboarding superstar Shaun White earns about $8 million a year in sponsorships.

There is a fear the adventure and extreme sport community is being adversely affected by “big business” whose representatives coerce extreme athletes into taking risks they’re not ready or equipped to take.

At issue is the perception athletes at the leading edge of risk are making decisions motivated by bling or profit rather than strictly based on a dispassionate and rational assessment of the situation.

Unspoken in the discussion is that a free-market economy is based upon risks and rewards. What some people find offensive is that this fundamental premise grounded in competition is now being applied to extreme sport and adventure. That rather than climbing a mountain for intrinsic reasons — ‘because it’s there’ — instead athletes are performing outrageous and high-risk stunts because that’s what it takes to win or a sponsor demands it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

In a free society, we are able to make our own decisions, whether as a Wall Street broker trading in derivatives living in a Manhattan penthouse suite, a ski bum living out of a VW bus, or an extreme athlete operating at the edge of what’s humanly possible. So long as we go in with our eyes wide open, fully aware of what we’re getting ourselves into. It also means we live with the consequences of those decisions whether it’s fame or fortune or life and limb.

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