Low Pay, High Risks, Extreme Glory

October 18, 2015


By Deanna Campbell – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

In the weeks leading up to the one of the biggest mountain biking events of the year, the risk versus reward debate has arisen in a sport not unfamiliar with the discussion. This October marks the 10th edition of Red Bull Rampage, an extreme mountain bike event that sees some of the world’s best big mountain riders take freeriding to the next level in unforgiving terrain outside of Zion National Park in Utah, USA.

Many competitors and commentators take issue with the small amount of prize money awarded to athletes given the dangers and risk involved. The Freeride Mountain Bike Association (FMBA) regulations set out the minimum prize money amount to be awarded ($35,000 USD) but it is up to the event organizer (in this case Red Bull) to determine the actual payout. Only the top five riders ride away with paycheques and placing anything less than 1st can award you with as little as several thousand dollars. And what about those who do not place? Should all athletes participating in Red Bull Rampage be compensated?

Some argue that in the interest of fairness, every competitor who qualifies should be amply compensated as a professional performer for participating in Red Bull Rampage or any FMBA event. Every rider lays down their lives for the competition. To be sure, one need only watch footage or view photos of some of the horrific crashes and close calls at Red Bull Rampage over the years. It is surprising that there have not been any fatalities yet. Proponents of compensation for all liken the athletes to performers in a show. Win or lose they are putting on a spectacular performance, one the promoters cash in on regardless of where the athletes place. Crashes are just as much a part of the competition, they add excitement and drama to the event and set the bar for which all competitors can be judged.

And Red Bull Rampage is costly for the riders. Mountain bike athletes rely primarily on income through support from sponsorships, and prize money from competitions. Unless financial incentives and support from sponsors are provided, athletes pay their own way to Rampage. The FMBA requires all athletes to purchase and have medical insurance and sports liability coverage. This can be expensive and in some cases insufficient. Mark Matthews, an athlete who competed in Red Bull Rampage 2013, suffered a serious injury during his run and required surgery. His insurance provider refused to pay citing his professional sports activities as “too dangerous.” He was left with $40,000 in medical bills. Examples like this leave many arguing that given the little amount of money competitors already receive in contrast to the large revenue generated from the competition, Red Bull should at least provide and cover the cost of health insurance for the competitors.

The riders also have little to no recourse if they get injured or die. The disclaimer that Red Bull has athletes sign absolves Red Bull and any third parties of any and all liability even in the event of Red Bull’s own negligence. Riders voluntarily assume all and any risks releasing everyone from liability except themselves.

While all this seems unfair, it doesn’t equate to any obligation, legal or otherwise, for Red Bull to compensate all athletes. To do so would change the nature of the competition and the nature of the relationship Red Bull has with the competitors. Red Bull is the promoter and Rampage is a contest, not an exhibition. There are some events/venues that pay athletes directly for appearance fees (i.e. golf, tennis) but this is freeride mountain biking, where competitions are traditionally a winner takes all format. You only get compensated if you place. This makes good sense – it would take away from the spirit and tradition of the sport to reward everyone for just being there and taking risks. Competitors are well aware of the inherent dangers in their sport and accept that risk when they compete. There are, so the argument goes, winners and losers and winners are the parties who ought to be rewarded.

As for the “losers” the risk does not go without any reward. Just competing in Rampage comes with mass exposure, possible sponsorships deals, and a huge sense of athletic achievement. Not to mention glory. You would be hard pressed to find a mountain biker who said he or she was in it for the money and not the glory.

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