Who’s watching over these athletes – besides the camera?
We see it way too often in Summit County – young people being critically injured or dying while participating in an event or sport.
The irony is they love it. And most wouldn’t change anything about their lives as extreme athletes.
Last weekend, Matt Wyffels, 20 years old and a snowboarder, suffered an injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down while participating in the Ford Ranger Freeride Challenge at Copper Mountain .
Wyffels was participating in the step-up contest – the first of its kind on snow – where skiers and snowboarders launch off a steep lip that sends them up and over a bar between two uprights. The bar reached a height of 24 feet above the jump.
Wyffels amazingly has remained upbeat about his situation and maintains he knew what he was getting into.
Such is the life of today’s extreme athlete.
Extreme athletes participate in sports such as rock climbing, snowboarding, skiing, bull riding, skydiving and skateboarding.
The days of outlaw sports seem to be gone. Not long ago, these extreme athletes were members of the sports counterculture. Now they are society. They are stars of television, commercials and video games. Extreme sports are becoming more accepted, more normal and more mainstream.
Extreme athletes or “fringe” participants are known for taking chances and pushing the safety envelope.
On Feb. 26, Aspen local Charlie Tarver crashed while riding a mountain bike at 95 mph down Snowmass Mountain. Tarver was participating in a demonstration race as part of Snowmass Week and the U.S. Speed Skiing Championships. Tarver was unconscious for several days. He sustained brain trauma, a broken rib, partially collapsed lung and a broken clavicle.
After the accident, organizers of that event stopped the competition. At Copper last weekend, Freeride Challenge organizers and athletes decided to continue on, even after Wyffels was injured.
This scenario is not uncommon. But, it begs the question, “Who is ultimately responsible – the individual athlete or the event organizer?”
It’s true in most organized events, racers or participants are given the opportunity to examine the course beforehand. In Colorado, laws state certain venues, such as ski areas, are not responsible for injuries resulting from dangers inherent in these sports.
Therefore, the legal responsibility seems to come back to the athlete. And, in all extreme sports, death and serious injury are a possibility.
But, sometimes that caution is overshadowed by pressure – pressure from sponsors, audiences and event organizers.
ESPN produces the popular Games and Winter Games. ESPN typically reaches 82 million homes. Its lone prime-time broadcast of the Games in 1999 drew about the same number of viewers who watch college basketball on network television.
Some of the extreme athletes have become celebrities. Skateboard legend Tony Hawk is what Michael Jordan is to basketball and Tiger Woods is to golf. There also are financial rewards. Some extreme athletes (such as in skateboarding) can average $100,000 annually. Most of the money comes from sponsors, endorsements, bonuses and appearance fees.
With potential pressures such as this, we have to wonder if – on some small scale – our thrill-seeking society is setting up these young athletes for a real fall, literally.
As a newspaper in a ski resort town, we’ve interviewed many extreme athletes over the years. These athletes have overwhelmingly said they participate because they love the risk, despite the sponsorship pressures and potential injuries.
We just have to wonder who is watching out for them.
Audience members at these events certainly applaud those athletes who choose to bow out before they get hurt, but more often, these athletes have a self-imposed pressure. It’s a pressure enhanced by the cheering crowd and the cameras that sometimes lead to glory, but other times lead to tragedy.
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