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Is The Push For 'Higher, Faster, Stronger' Forcing Olympic Athletes To Take Unreasonable Risks?

France's David Poisson competes during an alpine ski, men's World Cup downhill race, in Garmisch-Panterkirchen, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. Poisson died in November 2017 during training at Nakiska in Canada. (Marco Tacca/AP)
France's David Poisson competes during an alpine ski, men's World Cup downhill race, in Garmisch-Panterkirchen, Germany, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017. Poisson died in November 2017 during training at Nakiska in Canada. (Marco Tacca/AP)

With the Winter Olympics only weeks away, excitement is mounting for participating athletes. But that joy has been marred by recent tragedies. French skier and Olympic hopeful David Poisson was killed at the Nakiska ski area in Alberta, Canada, in mid-November after crashing through a safety barrier and hitting a tree. Weeks later, German skier Max Burkhart was also killed in Alberta, competing at the Nor-Am Cup.

The accidents, and others, leave some asking whether the risks of some winter sports are at best unreasonable and at worst immoral.

Here & Now‘s Robin Young discusses with Jon Heshka (@HeshkaSportsLaw), who recently wrote wrote an op-ed on the topic in The Vancouver Sun. Heshka is former associate dean of law at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, and author of “Managing Risk: Systems Planning for Outdoor Adventure Programs.”

Interview Highlights

On whether death and serious injury in sports have been normalized

“I don’t think anyone would actually utter those words out loud, but it becomes problematic after not just one skier but two skiers die on these courses within a month. And it seems to be the response of the skiing community, including the event organizers, to assign blame or point the finger of blame at the skiers for their deaths.”

On the appeal of high risk

“I suppose we’ve reached a point in time now where spectacle is being regarded as more important than sport, and we get people like [skier Brian] Stemmle who are figuring that it’s OK for athletes to go in and sustain these kinds of injuries. And I just don’t think that’s right and proper.

“Oftentimes what we hear is that, ‘Well these are the risks that athletes ordinarily consent to.’ And I think we get that: that there are inherent risks to these things. But the courses upon which these athletes actually compete, they are built by people, and people can make these courses go faster or they can make them go slower. Over time there has been this default position to make courses increasingly more difficult, faster, have the athletes huck bigger air, and the consequence of making a mistake on the course is often paid with their life. In speed courses, when a downhill skier is launched off a jump, they may travel distances greater than 100 feet, and while they’re doing this maybe they may be traveling at speeds of 60, 80 miles per hour.”

On why the risks for skiers are heightened

“There’s often an argument made — a disingenuous argument made — that the risks that ski racers take are little different than what you or I may take in walking to work or driving. It’s one thing to break an arm or a leg, but it’s something entirely different to pay — the cost of making a mistake is one’s life.”

On the allure of prize money or other awards in competition

“At games like the Olympics or the X Games or anything else, the prospect of a gold medal or of sponsorship dollars — and [snowboarder] Shaun White was making $6 million a year at the height of his career — that kind of bling, the inducement, the enticement will actually motivate people, particularly younger athletes, into attempting stunts or tricks that they aren’t necessarily equipped or ready to do.”

On steps that can be taken to make courses safer

“We can slow down courses. F1, Formula One race car driving, couple years ago realized that they’ve gone fast enough and it was time for them to pump the brakes. And similarly those who run alpine ski racing, race organizers, in an effort to make the courses go as fast as possible, they sprayed water on the courses so that these athletes are actually skiing on snow, they’re skiing on near-vertical ice. I don’t think we have to have athletes competing at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.”

On the spectacle of crashes

“We have to be honest: Spectacular crashes make for great viewing. People love to watch that sort of thing. I’ve never heard an event organizer or someone from an international federation say that, ‘We’re going to purposefully engineer our resources to be super fast with the consequent result that they’re going to be crashes,’ but it almost seems to be implicit in their actions and their reasoning. And several athletes have said, ‘I think we’re going fast enough here. I think 100 miles per hour is fast enough, and I don’t think people will be switching the channels if we dial it back to 90, 95 miles per hour, for example.”

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