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OPINION: Sports community needs to talk about risks to high-level athletes

French skier David Poisson. (Image: YouTube)

By JON HESHKA
and JEFF JACKSON

Max Burkhart, a 17-year-old German skier, was competing in the downhill event at the Nor-Am Cup in Lake Louise on Tuesday, Dec. 5, when he crashed and died.

French skier David Poisson, who competed for France at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and was training and had hoped to qualify for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, was killed on Monday, Nov. 13, at Nakiska Ski Area in Alberta after he crashed, lost a ski, blew through safety nets, reportedly hit a tree and died on site.

The media coverage and response of the skiing community seems to be a collective shrugging of the shoulders — an almost indifferent ‘meh’ — that skiing is dangerous, that these are the sorts of risks accepted and that what happened was an unfortunate and unforeseeable accident.

Former Canadian alpine ski racer Brian Stemmle is quoted as saying that athletes are acutely aware of the danger and accept the risks, and that high risk and high speed are what make the Winter Olympics sexy. Scott Russell of the CBC opined that the risk of dying at the Olympics is an agreed-upon part of the business and that it informs the bottom line.

While there are some shards of truth to what they’re saying, the notion that the risk of dying at the Olympics is an inherent part of its business plan is offensive and wrong.

When Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died on the opening day of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, his father said it was wrong that his son’s mistake should cost him his life.

There’s a difference between athletes consenting to getting hurt, even critically injured, while competing in high-risk sports, and them agreeing to the possibility of dying on a race course. Not to be overlooked is the dubious morality of these sports’ governing bodies and the Olympics, which have drawn its athletes and the broader community into thinking that it’s normal to die while playing a game.

There has been no public outcry over Poisson’s death. No navel gazing or asking how a tragedy like this could have been avoided. Nothing. This shows the extent to which killing an athlete in the name of sport has become generally accepted.

The problem is that big sport, like the Olympics or the X-Games, has become as much to do with spectacle as it is about sport. The Olympic motto is ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ which means faster, higher, stronger. Sport has seemingly mutated this motto into something unrecognizable so that the playing surface on which these athletes compete — whether it is a luge track, ski slope or halfpipe — have never been steeper or faster and jumps have never been higher.

Retired Canadian alpine ski racer Kelly VanderBeek said six years ago, “We know there are risks but we’ve gone too far” and, while acknowledging that ski racing is an inherently dangerous sport, qualified it by saying, “It doesn’t have to be this dangerous. It’s just taken a quantum leap in the severity” of injuries sustained by skiers.

Back to Poisson’s and Burkhart’s deaths.

Some have rationalized it as basically the cost of doing business. It is almost as if the possibility of death hasn’t merely been accepted but normalized to the extent that it’s maybe even expected. So just like a Gladiator-themed contest where swordsmen would combat tigers and other fighters, competitors now fight G-forces, super fast and impossibly steep slopes and are expected to huck huge air.

Sports governing bodies and event organizers are motivated to push the envelope and be on the razor’s edge of safety and spectacle. But it is the athletes who bear the risk in this arrangement, not the governing bodies.

When Canadian Nik Zoricic died in 2012 in a ski cross race in Switzerland, one member of Canada’s famed Crazy Canucks, Todd Brooker, was critical of those running the sport, saying they were just making it up as they go along. Sports governing bodies initially accused both Zoricic and Kumaritashvili of being architects of their own demise. It was only after Zoricic’s family threatened to sue that the International Ski Federation backtracked and admitted his death was not the result of a freak accident or pilot error.

It is not the time to circle the wagons, stifle debate or shift responsibility when an athlete dies participating in a high-risk sport. The skiing and performance sport community need to talk frankly and freely about how much risk is acceptable, the means to manage and regulate unreasonable risk, and to take away whatever other lessons can be learned from these deaths.

Jon Heshka is an associate professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops and Jeff Jackson is a professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Article originally published in The Vancouver Sun. Re-published courtesy Thompson Rivers University.

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About Mel Rothenburger (6108 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

1 Comment on OPINION: Sports community needs to talk about risks to high-level athletes

  1. And then we must include in the talk the impact the bad example the Citius, Altius, Fortius motto has on the broad appeal of many sports. Just from a public health point of view dealing with an untold number of injuries. Because injuries often will stay on forever and cause pain management issues and we know now how that one is going.

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