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Sports that demand speed are more dangerous than those that require stamina. Case in point: Swedish slopestyle skier Henrik Harlaut during a qualifying round at Sochi. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
Sports that demand speed are more dangerous than those that require stamina. Case in point: Swedish slopestyle skier Henrik Harlaut during a qualifying round at Sochi. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

Faster, stronger – deadlier: Why do elite athletes sneer at risk and tempt the gods, and why do we encourage them? Add to ...

On Dec. 28, 2010, 15 seconds into the infamous World Cup downhill run at Bormeo, Italy, Louis-Pierre Hélie, skiing for Canada as the 13th best downhiller in the world, caught an edge while travelling 144 kilometres an hour.

He landed on his head – so hard that his body instinctively contracted into the fetal position, an autonomic reaction doctors call “cocooning.” It probably saved his life. Mr. Hélie woke up as he was being lifted into a rescue helicopter, and spent three days in hospital as doctors monitored his concussion, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and a patch of bleeding in his brain the size of a quarter.

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When he went back to downhill six months later, things were understandably different. “In World Cup skiing, everybody is really good technically,” he says today. “But 80 per cent is probably confidence, and how you approach the hill. I was missing the little bit extra you need in a race.” He joined Canada’s national ski cross team instead.

The average speed in ski cross, after all, is only 80 km an hour. “It just feels a bit more comfortable, knowing you’re going a bit slower.” There are still head-spinning 150-foot jumps and groin-splitting hairpins and bowel-clenching collisions (they draw many fans) as four elite skiers try to navigate the gates of a course as fast as possible at the same time. Ski cross resembles downhill roller derby. In 2012, two months after Canadian freestyle champion Sarah Burke died after severing her vertebral artery while attempting a half-pipe manoeuvre on skis, Mr. Hélie’s teammate Nik Zoricic was killed in a famous ski cross crash. “It was a big shock to me,” Mr. Hélie says, “and still is.”

But he keeps competing in life-threatening winter sports, like other elite athletes, however much the sport establishment tries to pretend otherwise. Last week, the International Olympic Committee told snowboarders at Sochi they couldn’t wear decals of Sarah Burke’s name on their helmets, in memory of her death. No need to talk about that! At Craigleith Ski Club north of Toronto, where Nik Zoricic was once a member, kids zoom around with the initials NZ on their headgear.

A reasonable question is why. Why do elite athletes sneer at risk and tempt the gods, and why do we encourage them? Why were we willing to accept the National Hockey League’s claim that brains could be bopped about like bolas and still be perfectly fine, or the National Football League’s long-standing pretence that dementia was for sissies? Where did we find this notion that it’s an expression of human aspiration at its fastest, strongest and highest to risk permanent injury and even death in pursuit of a triple somersault on skis? And why, when snowboarder Shaun White dropped out of Sochi’s slopestyle competition last week, citing the danger of the course, did we bring down an avalanche of sneering taunts, the nastiest of them Canadian, on his tomato-colored head? Admittedly, Olympic alpine skiing has always been dangerous, and the Shaunster can be a little precious. But our lust for dangerous sports makes us look like a nation of Neros, thirsting for the blood of the physically gifted. No wonder athletes have started to fight back.

‘A heavy thing to do’

Risk in sport has been a concern since at least the 1920s, when rowing and running were thought to strain the heart. (It was an upper-class concern; no one cared about boxers.) But it’s almost as difficult to measure sporting risk as it is to do anything about it – especially when it’s decorated with the hyper-commercialized, super-optimistic, high-definiton, colour-saturated, dissent-smothering excelsior of the Olympics. Sound the trumpet voluntary, please.

Still, some things we know. Sports that demand speed or acrobatic skills – downhill racing, trick skiing, snowboarding – are more dangerous than sports that require mere stamina. Michael Schumacher, the Formula 1 champion, survived hundreds of car races, but he has been in critical condition in hospital in France following a ski accident at a resort Dec. 29.

Many researchers consider snowboarding even more dangerous than skiing because it’s newer. A study in California found that 49 per cent of injured snowboarders were beginners, versus 18 per cent of injured skiers. If you really want to avoid a head injury, though, slow down. Roald Bahr, the head of the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Centre at the Norwegian School of Sports Science, found that racing downhill at 128 kilometres an hour is more dangerous than ski jumping at 80. Velocity kills.

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