With the Summer X Games going on in L.A., I realize how far extreme sports (aka action sports) have evolved since my adolescent skateboarding days, but the dangers of extreme sports are becoming a problem we need to address. With the spotlight on recent deaths and permanent injuries associated with action sports, we have reached a point in the sports’ history when the event organizers, partners, and sponsors need to draw boundaries and create more concrete rules to protect competitors.
The beginning of extreme sports
Although very few girls were into skateboarding when I was a child, I learned very quickly and loved it. After mastering one jump or trick, I wanted to move on to another more difficult, riskier maneuver.
It was during this time that extreme sports was in the process of growing. Kids were inventing tricks on skateboards, snowboards, and BMX freestyle bikes. Quarter pipes and half pipes were starting to become more popular, and Tony Hawk became a household name.
In 1995, ESPN zeroed in on the interests of these pioneer Gen Xers and their Generation Y counterparts, and hosted the first Summer X Games, which included skateboarding, bungee jumping, BMX biking, mountain biking, street luging, moto crossing, and similar sports that were fairly new relative to traditional sports like baseball.
Two years later, the network launched the first Winter X Games, which included competitions involving snowboarding, snowmobiling, and skiing. Both X Games events drew hundreds of thousands of spectators and many sponsors because there was so much money to be made in this previously untapped market. It was also exciting because these events legitimized these sports.
The dangers of extreme sports competitions
However, as extreme sport competitions have evolved, the injuries and deaths associated with them are becoming a problem that need to be addressed. For a case in point, I recommend HBO’s documentary The Crash Reel.
It details the remarkable recovery of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2009 while preparing for the Olympics. The injury left him unable to return to the sport, but he is lucky to be alive and able to walk. Pearce had to relearn basic functions such as walking, talking, writing, and still struggles with impairments to his memory, vision, mental health and coordination.
The documentary also includes once very popular athletes such as dirt biker Stephen Murray, who is paralyzed from the shoulders down after an injury in the Dew Tour Competition held in 2007. In the documentary, Murray claimed spectators “want to see people go out there and crash because the crowds get excited… that’s what the crowd loves.” The footage of the crash that left him in a wheelchair is widely available on the internet, and can be found here.
Also interviewed in the documentary was skateboarder Adam Taylor, who, like Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury, claimed extreme sport athletes do not get the medical treatment they need. He also said having insurance — a requirement to participate in the X Games — is insufficient for a competitor left with a life altering injury needing long-term care. Taylor admitted to suffering with severe mental health problems due to his TBI as well.
Other injuries and fatalities
Earlier this year, Caleb Moore died from injuries he sustained while competing in this year’s Winter X Games. The 25-year old crashed his snowmobile after mislanding a flip. As a result, a recent article in Atlantic Monthly called on ESPN to ban flipping in snowmobile competitions.
Freestyle skier Sarah Burke died after an accident during a training run on a Utah superpipe for a sponsor event. She was 29 and at the top of her sport with four gold X Game medals.
There are many other examples. The point is that we have stretched the boundaries of action sports so much that no matter how good you are, one wrong landing, one wrong twist, a matter of a few inches could mean the difference between life and death or a serious life altering injury. Further, these deaths and injuries affect the competitors’ family members, who often have to take care of their permanently disabled love one.
How pushing the limits of extreme sports is hurting young people
Unfortunately these action sport competitions are taking a toll on its competitors because the level of risk involved in competing increases as time goes on. And, it only seems to be getting more dangerous. Extreme sports competitions are pushing the limits of human capability.
For example, the snowboard half pipe at the first Winter X Games 16 years ago was 12 feet tall. Now it is 10 feet taller, standing at 22 feet. This increases the thrill for both competitors and spectators, but it has not come without a price. Will event organizers increase that height in the future? Or should they put an official limit on the height of the halfpipe wall now to protect its competitors?
In 2004, the Summer X Games introduced the Big Air Mega Ramp, which stands 62 feet tall — a new challenge for skateboarders and BMX bikers. Do we really need such a huge ramp to enjoy watching the skills of skateboarders? I do not think we do. And watching the young men in their prime crash on these ramps is disturbing.
Action sport competitions have turned athletes into daredevils. Spectators watch to be thrilled more than they watch for the sheer competition of the event. I realize all sports are risky, but the extent of risk and the degree of danger in extreme sports is unparalleled compared to other sports.
Where should we go from here?
It would be irresponsible for both sponsors and the organizers, who invite the participants, to make money from the event without taking an interest in the health and safety of its participants. I am not implying they do not already.
But, we need to begin the conversation to set parameters, just like every other sport does, for its competitors. Competition organizers should ban moves that carry a significant danger of causing death or permanent disability. Stop increasing the element of danger. Start by ending the ever increasing height of the half pipes and super pipes.
To give some perspective, do we increase the height of the balance beam in gymnastics every few years just because gymnasts have grown accustomed to carrying out great performances at the height on the current beam? No. Do we raise the height of the uneven bars to increase the danger of the performance solely to gratify any thrill-seeking spectators? Absolutely not. Standards have been set in place, and we can enjoy the display of athleticism without the added element of danger.
My point is, we can enjoy and appreciate the athleticism of an extreme sport athlete without watching them soar so high in the air that crashing could mean death.
All sports carry risks, some more than others. And, extreme sports are and always will be the most inherently risky. But, that does not mean we do not have an obligation to place limits on them in competitions to protect participants, especially since most of those participants are young males — the segment of the population most likely to take risks and statistically the most to die in accidents.
We allow extreme sports to “run wild,” setting no rules or parameters buying into the hype that an extreme sport means no limits. But as long as something is considered a sport, it should have rules and parameters. Otherwise, it is an Evel Knievel-like thrill show. If that is what sponsors and participants want, then create a show and go on tour, but do not call it a sport.
No one should have to sacrifice or at least risk with great probability his life, mental well-being from traumatic brain injuries, or ability to walk for his sport. But that is what is happening, even to the best action sport athletes today.
The Crash Reel. Dir. Lucy Walker. HBO Documentaries, 2013. Documentary.
“The History of Winter X Games: Part 1.” Snowboard Magazine. Feb. 9, 2011. Web. Aug. 3, 2013.
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