They do it because they have to. They need the feeling of exertion, that head rush of air and attitude. They want what Warren Shouldice knows is hard to explain unless you flip head over skis, knees over board, and kick snow in the face of danger.
That's what drew Shouldice to freestyle aerials and helped him become a world champion after he had broken his neck and compressed his back. It's what powered the late Sarah Burke to four Winter X Games championships and made her a success in the superpipe, skiing's answer to snowboarding's half-pipe.
"It's almost no fun doing it if there's no risk involved," said Shouldice, a 12-time World Cup medalist in a daredevil game. "The trick is making it a manageable risk."
When Burke died Thursday, nine days after falling during a training run in Park City, Utah, it saddened a nation and a sporting community world-wide. Burke was 29 and happily prepping for her sport's inclusion in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She had been injured many times before – a broken back, a torn shoulder – but nothing could dampen her love of skiing and the need to push herself to the brink of manageable risk and beyond.
Such is the appeal of many established and extreme sports, both for participants and spectators. The risks and rewards provide the thrills. Alpine skiing, particularly the ultra-fast downhill, has been a major attraction for decades. But the advent of the X Games upped the adrenalin quotient considerably.
The Games were the brainchild of ESPN producer Ron Semiao. In 1993, Semiao was looking for programming to fill the cable channel's fledgling ESPN2. He spotted a series of oddball sports that seemed to have a culture all their own and suggested to his bosses that ESPN create a made-for-TV sporting event. Two years later ESPN launched the first Extreme Games, a week-long competition that featured bungee jumping, mountain biking, skateboarding and street luge. Ratings weren't great and some critics panned the spectacle as "moronic." But ESPN stuck with it and made the games an annual event, later adding a second winter sports program. It also changed the name to X Games.
The popularity of the X Games took off and today they rival the Olympics in some respects. The X Games pull in more than 100,000 spectators and draw a television audience of around 44 million. They have also attracted major sponsors such as Ford, BF Goodrich, Sony and athletes such as Shaun White make up to $8-million annually in sponsorship deals.
The X Games are so popular, ESPN has announced plans to expand from two annual events to six, three summer and three winter. Bids from potential host cities have been flooding in, including one from Whistler B.C., which sees the X Games as a complement to the 2010 Olympics. Meanwhile rival network NBC has started a competing series called Dew Tour with PepsiCo and the Olympics have taken up some X Games sports, including Burke's specialty halfpipe skiing, which will be in the 2014 Games in Sochi.
The X Games "have gone viral," says Lee Berke, who runs consulting firm LHB Sports, Entertainment & Media Inc. in New York. "It's very grassroots in its appeal." Berke added that the X Games have won over major sponsors because the viewing audience is so young, largely 18-34, which means many have yet to form brand loyalties.
But at the root of it all is the question: why? Why do athletes gamble with their lives by doing something so inherently dangerous? Like flying upside down off a 22-foot snow wall or skiing from ridiculous heights?
Asit Rathod has a wonderful life. He's single, active, works at a sales job in Portland, Ore. But as often as he can, he climbs to the top of Mt. Hood and skis off a cliff with a parachute on his back. He's done it many times and is now eyeing bigger verticals – Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Everest.
Ask him why he does it and Rathod's passion runs wild.
"People always say, 'Why do you feel the need to risk your life?' It's about the power of adventure. In day-to-day life, adventure has been ripped from us in the way we drive, the way we eat. You get to that place where you have to have that adventure," he said. "The risk is always the excitement."
Rathod was a good friend of Shane McConkey, who died in 2009 when he skied off a cliff in Italy and his chute failed to open. Over the past four years, Rathod has lost "six, seven good friends" to extreme-sport accidents yet he has no plans to take up something with a safer track record.
"You remember their spirit. You remember their smile," he said of his fallen comrades. "If anything, it gives you more inspiration to do what you're doing. It's like Nietzsche said, 'The secret to reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously.'"
Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, was saddened by the news of Burke's death but insisted freestyle skiing is no more dangerous than any other winter sport. "There are always risks attached to sport," he stated.
Mitigating those risks is the relentless challenge. The International Ski Federation is presently examining how to equip downhill skiers with air bags to protect them during high-speed spills. FIS has been working with Dainese, the Italian company that makes protection for mountain bikers and motorcyclists. Canadian downhillers Erik Guay and Jan Hudec have been involved in the testing. Three years into the project, FIS is hoping to have a race suit fully ready for the end of this year.
Not so high tech, yet just as important, is the way young athletes are trained for their sport. Alpine Canada is holding a series of speed skills camps to instruct young racers on how to ski safely. At Calgary's Canada Olympic Park, there are plans to expand on an acrobatics room with trampolines and foam pits for budding freestylers. The kids, ages 9 to 14, practise there first before graduating to jumping off a ramp and landing in an air bad. Eventually, after hundreds of practice jumps, they move to the snow and begin in moderation.
"What we're doing is hiring top coaches to train top athletes," said Daniel Lefebvre, COP's director of education/sport development. "You have to build their confidence."
Shouldice, who recovered from both of his bad crashes but is currently sidelined with a concussion, endorses all of that – solid training and coaching. He also believes Burke's death, whole tragic, will not adversely affect freestyle skiing.
"I don't think this is going to change anyone's opinion of freestyle," he said. "Yes, there are risks. There are risks driving to work every day, Look at the number of people in freestyle and this is our first death. A lot of sports can't say that."