By Kimberly Jensen – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student
Since when has performing front flips on snowmobiles been thought to be possible? With high stakes, such as paralysis or death, what is driving the exponential development of extreme athletes’ ‘bags of tricks’? Is it their individual desire for excitement or is it pressures from competition and sponsors? The answer to whether stricter regulation of extreme sports is necessary depends on what the catalyst for progression is.
Recently, three athletes died in two separate avalanches in South America while filming ski segments for marketing. While these deaths were not part of a regulated activity, they are illustrative of the risks athletes take. The film industry and the competition circuit are two very different components in the life of an extreme sports athlete.
Apart from those two components of the professional version of extreme sports, there is also a recreational component that sees people privately participating, solely for the enjoyment of pushing their comfort levels.
Extreme Sports Films
It is up to athletes to resist pressure and make choices rather than be pressured by sponsors to film, however regulation (if feasible in any form) may be desirable because of the trickle down influence from films to the general population. The footage from films is often seen as inspiration for recreationalists looking to emulate what professionals do, leading to ambitions overstepping ability.
A factor making it hard to regulate films is that often, film segments are freelance. Athletes make clips then try and sell them to production companies, or even just edit and post them online. The near impossibility and impracticality of regulating the freelance film producers may be unfortunate for safety standards, however there are freedoms that individuals should be accorded and this seems to fit into that category.
Extreme Sports Competitions
The purses at the top competitions for extreme sports are not comparable to traditional sports, however, they are increasing – $3,000,000 is given out in prize money at each X Games. With this kind of money on the line, the athletes are motivated to engage in risky behavior.
It seems that defenders of competitions always proffer the same arguments – athletes have assumed risk and understand possible consequences. While these points are true, is a race or trick worth dying for? Recently, in response to fatalities during competition, the FIS and X Games have made modifications to create a safer arena for athletes. The X Games even dropped Snowmobile Best Trick category because it had no purpose other than for athletes to engage in risky behavior. This is a great reaction, and sets the tone for reigning in extreme sports competitions for the sake of safety, which I propose athletes deserve.
Recreational Participation in Extreme Sports
As long as suicide is legal, it seems the question of whether participation in non-commercialized extreme sports can be regulated answers itself: no. Currently, some locations available for engaging in extreme sports are regulated; other than that, participants have freedom to do as they wish. Part of the issue here is that often the sports happen in natural locations that are not developed by anyone, so there is no one to regulate except the participants themselves. Regulation may drive the sports underground, however it is not likely to increase safety.
What Is the Catalyst and Is Stricter Regulation Necessary?
Many athletes claim to be motivated by their inherent desire to push the limits and progress in their chosen sports. Climbing mountains because they’re there or taking up wing-suit flying without any sponsors, cameras or competitions in sight suggests that at least some people are driven to participate in these sports appreciating these inherent risks and not motivated by commercial forces.
In the day of ‘Kodak Courage’, significant sponsorship dollars and prize money, it may not be possible for athletes to be immune to external pressures and self regulate. The culture of extreme sports is often that of enjoying an alternative lifestyle, where money is not really a concern beyond being able to afford the appropriate sports equipment. Athletes that have been inducted into this culture are reluctant to recognize external commercial pressure – it is not part of who they want to be, nor is it part of the image they want to convey.
Even though athletes seem to voluntarily assume these risks, it seems to me that the modern industry thriving from extreme sports should bear some responsibility for safety of athletes. Extreme sports will continue to progress, injuries and deaths will continue to happen and regulations will never be enough to eliminate the inherent risk of flying a wing-suit through a hole in a cliff. Yes, there are arguments that the whole point of extreme sports is to continue the progression toward the edge of possible, however there are ‘safer’ ways in which it can be done, and participation should be because it is what the athlete ‘needs’ for self-actualization.
The law needs to keep people safe, however it must also allow people fundamental freedoms. In extreme sports, perhaps safety and maintaining freedom of athletes to participate are not mutually exclusive and a balance will be found between regulation and participation.