The Deadly Costs of Extreme Sports

Sports, News

It may seem like sports are becoming ridiculously extreme, given the recent addition of things like freestyle skiing and snowboarding to the Olympic Games. But if you think about it, people have been pushing physical competition to the limits of survival since the days of the gladiators.

However, living as we do in a time period where violent death is no longer an enjoyable spectator sport, when it does occur, it’s a shock. The recent death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke illustrates the point, and begs the question of whether extreme sports are worth the dangers they pose to competitors.

Furthermore, do the governing bodies of individual sports do enough to protect their athletes? Is there any recourse when an athlete is severely injured or killed while participating in extreme sports—and should there be? What about the ethics behind allowing minor athletes to compete in high-risk sports?

Risk and Liability

There’s no question that even mainstream sports can and do lead to injury. In fact, injury is a fact of life for athletes—so much so that if every time an athlete was hurt, he or she sued someone, organized sports would cease to exist. Athletes accept the risks inherent in their sport, and this is especially true for extreme sports. If you regularly perform multiple airborne flips in practice and competition, it is understood that you are risking your life, and that you alone are responsible for the outcome.

But what are the financial and human costs of high-risk sports, and do governing bodies have the right to put laws into place that protect those who refuse to protect themselves? How much regulation is too much? Several countries are struggling with this question, from BASE jumping in Switzerland to backcountry snowmobiling in Canada. The argument is that those who choose to participate in such dangerous activities hurt more than just themselves when things go wrong. Not only do they cost taxpayers money when they are severely injured, but a violent injury or death traumatizes bystanders as well.

Safety and the Olympic Games

In organized sports, athletes are required to follow certain safety rules. In the case of freestyle snowboarding, helmets are mandatory, as well as airbags in the pipes—though halfpipes have become higher than ever with their sides now standing at 22 feet. As of 2010, the safety of the sport was self-regulated by the athletes themselves, according to snowboarder Jake Burton, who argues that athletes aren’t going to purposely do things that are likely to kill them. In order to have freestyle skiing accepted as an Olympic sport, though, several regulations to maximize safety were put into place. The CEO of Canada’s freestyle team, Peter Judge, claims that because of the Olympic requirements freestyling is actually one of the safer sports, with an excellent safety record. He goes on to refer to Burke’s death as a “fluke.”

Minors and Extreme Sports

Most Olympic athletes begin training when they are very young—well under legal adulthood—which raises child endangerment issues. Is it responsible, even ethical, to allow a 16-year-old to fly through the air at high speeds on a snowboard, backcountry ski in avalanche country, mountain climb, or sail around the world alone? At what age do these activities become reasonable? Should parents and/or coaches be liable for severe injury or death? Particularly with the X-Games becoming mainstream (not to mention a huge moneymaker for sponsors and networks such as ESPN) and extreme sports getting a toehold in the Olympics, how should regulation and liability be changed—if at all—for athletes who are minors?

Life is Risky

Sarah Burke, of course, was not a minor when she died. She was 29 years old, and fully aware of the dangers of her sport. In fact, it was not a flashy new trick gone wrong that killed her. It was a “routine” 540-degree flat spin with a landing on flat ground that, at first, looked innocuous. She died of a ruptured neck artery that caused cardiac arrest after falling and hitting her head. Safety gear can help, but humans are not designed to hit hard surfaces at a high speed, helmets and padding notwithstanding. In fact, more people die skiing on commercial slopes each year than in extreme sports, and the number of ski-related deaths per year has remained steady despite the addition of safety gear. Sarah Burke spoke frankly about the risks of freestyling, and she accepted them. She was statistically more likely to be killed driving her car than freestyling—a fact we, as a nation of drivers, may prefer to ignore.