While Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke’s death has been viewed as a freak accident, the debate continues to rage about the safety of the sport and the risks athletes are willing to take to push the boundaries.
Burke died Thursday morning in a Salt Lake City hospital, nine days after tearing the artery that supplies blood to the brainstem during halfpipe training at a venue in Park City, Utah.
But the crash occurred on a landing after a manoeuvre that wasn’t considered out of the ordinary.
Still, some believe the concept of faster, higher and stronger is being taken to dangerous levels.
Two years ago at the Winter Olympics in Whistler, B.C., Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died while attempting to guide his sled around a track that’s considered one of fastest and most challenging in the world.
One athlete, in particular, who feels things are getting out of hand, is former American snowboarder Kevin Pearce.
In eerily similar fashion to the injuries Burke endured at the same Park City venue, Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury during a halfpipe training run in 2009. He attempted a double cork move — the same move American icon Shaun White made famous at the Vancouver Olympics — which consists of two flips and three spins. But as he flew downward, Pearce hit his head on the lip of the halfpipe.
The 24-year-old suffered severe memory loss, impaired vision and had to learn to walk again.
Sport 'beyond safe'
After months of rehab, Pearce said he’ll never compete again because doctors have advised him that his brain can’t sustain another blow. But he also believes athletes in all freestyle disciplines are taking bigger risks.
"You know snowboarding is so dangerous now and these sports have just gotten to this level that’s so high. Just beyond safe," Pearce told CBC News Network on Friday. "It’s just kind of gotten to this level that is really intense."
Holly Thorpe has a different view.
A former snowboarder and an expert on extreme sports, Thorpe said that aside from the inherent risks, athletes take special care by practising their jumps several times on mats before ever attempting them on a live hill.
Thorpe also believes competitors are motivated by performing manoeuvres that have never been done before.
"They would really struggle to say 'okay we’ll pull it back because for so long we’ve supported that constant progression,'" Thorpe told CBC reporter Teddy Katz.
"It’s part of sport ethic [and] it’s hard to police that."
Tom McIllfaterick spent more than 20 years running Canada’s national snowboard and freestyle ski teams. He thinks sports continue to face a dilemma when it comes to managing risk — but it’s more pronounced today.
"Sport is all about pushing human abilities and talents against the laws of biology and physics," McIllfaterick told Katz. "And harsh reality is that in some sports, those limits are a lot less forgiving."
Bean not buying argument
Jeff Bean has heard the safety and risk argument for years but doesn’t buy into it all the talk. Bean was an aerialist on Canada’s nation team for 11 years before retiring in 2007.
Bean, who finished on the World Cup podium 17 times and was also the silver medallist at the 2005 world championships, broke his neck at an event in Australian in 2004, yet maintains the freestyle skiing federation (FIS) does a great job of taking care of its athletes.
“We take every single precaution and injuries do happen,” Bean told CBCSports.ca. "They [FIS] have very strict standards as what kind of medical personnel and staff need to be on site for any sanctioned training or competition events.
"I’ve seen people helicoptered off hills and they’re [taken to hospital] within 20 minutes. It all goes back to there is an inherent risk and we are out there to the elements some times, and we’re at a ski hill, it’s cold and there’s a lot going on. But I know safety is a primary concern and I’ve never seen any major issues."
As for skiers pushing the envelope for the sake of outside influences like the Olympics, sponsors or an enthusiastic fan base, Bean dismisses the notion that athletes let those kinds of external pressures get in the way.
"The top end — four and five [athletes] — do okay financially and make money but people do this because they love to ski and they like to hang out with their friends on the ski hill," said Bean. "Yes they want to be in the Olympics but the pressure to do something like this really has to be internally motivated or else you won’t do it because it is dangerous.
"The Olympics and fame is just a by product of you getting to do what you love."
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