The extreme in extreme sports: Is progression in sports destroying the bodies of young athletes?

Clelia Frondaroli | Head of Comment

At 22 years old Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury whilst training for an upcoming snowboarding championship. After a season of winning consecutive titles in various competitions, and noted as the prime competitor to Shawn White, the injury marked the end of his professional career. Pearce’s injury however was not an isolated incident; over the last 20 years, sport-related injuries (especially in those labelled ‘extreme sports’) have become more and more frequent, despite major improvements in safety equipment and technical gear. What has facilitated this increase in sports-related injuries then and what does this mean for the future of young athletes?

One reason for this rise in injuries can be linked to the idea that progression in sports has evolved much faster than the human body can cope. Mike Douglas, a professional skier, has argued that the rise in injuries such as TBI (traumatic brain injuries) is a result of the intensification of outdoor sports, arguing that the heights and velocities that athletes are frequently competing at are unsustainable for the human body. For instance, at Olympic-level snowboarding, the standard height for a half pipe is 22 feet (7 metres) whilst elite snowboarders typically perform stunts at least 20 feet over this pipe. Considering a fall from even 10 feet is enough to fracture the skull, snowboarders are in danger of sustaining multiple injuries during competition if they are unable to land correctly. This is an issue that is mirrored across all kinds of sports. Skiers regularly reach speeds of 100 mph during a downhill descent, meaning that crashes are frequent and the injuries they sustain are catastrophic.

However, this intensification of sports did not always exist. In the 80s, half pipes were about four feet tall, and snowboarders performed very basic stunts. Although technology in the form of safety equipment was less developed, the stunts themselves were not dangerous enough to cause major injury. It is important to question, therefore, how have sports reached a point of progression beyond the capabilities of the human body? In his documentary ‘The Crash Reel’, Pearce noted that he had felt pressure from sponsors to perform increasingly daring stunts in order to garner media attention. Sports broadcasting was (and still is) a multi-million form of entertainment, drawing in viewership from a broad range of audiences. However, it is also a highly saturated field, meaning that sponsors must use a degree of ‘shock factor’ (that arises from dangerous stunts) to draw in viewers. This can also be seen in brands such as Red Bull, where extreme sports athletes are shown consuming the drink before embarking on an off-road venture.

Furthermore, sport has reached levels of competition never seen before. In a field where landing a triple axle (a stunt that requires three full rotations mid-air) in competitions was unheard of even four years ago, figure skaters now find they must land quads (four full rotations) to have a chance at even reaching the leader board. This intensification of competition has meant that athletes are now having to perform more complicated routines in order to achieve medals yet with detrimental consequences to their minds and bodies.

It is important then, that we must find new ways to progress sports without driving athletes to limits beyond their capabilities. Tougher limits should be set on the ages at which athletes are able to compete to prevent the premature destruction of young bodies and it is also important that the media (and its audiences) breaks the precedent that has been set that bigger (and indeed more dangerous) stunts are better.

Image by Taras Khimchak via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.



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