“Health and safety of the athletes is our No. 1 priority,” International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams told reporters in response to the concerns about athlete injuries at Sochi. But many of the sports showcased are inherently dangerous, and excelling in them is to thrive on a disregard for health and safety.
These Olympic Games have been remarkable for the feedback, ranging from negative to unprintable, from the athletes — notably the skiers and snowboarders — about the course conditions. In the slopestyle competitions, some considered the course to be mistakenly oversized due to misjudgements about snow levels, with Canada’s Sébastien Toutant likening it to “jumping out of a building” and the most famous snowboarder in the world, U.S. two-time gold-medalist Shaun White, dropping out of that portion of the competition entirely on the grounds that it was too dangerous. The ensuing crashes caused serious injuries, including a broken spine, a severe concussion and a helmet that split in a violent demonstration of what the athletes are putting on the line.
The halfpipe course seemed to produce more falls than tricks. “When you see every other person fall, you know something’s wrong,” American Hannah Teter, the 2006 gold medalist, told reporters. U.S. snowboarder Danny Davis called the course “garbage,” before seeming to fall victim to the problems he noted, when he successfully landed huge tricks but crashed on both his final runs on the “mushy” flat bottom of the pipe, normally the easy part.
As I have watched athletes compete during the Olympics — many of them accomplishing incredible feats within their sports — I have been thinking of the athletes who never made it to finals or even to Russia. U.S. halfpipe snowboarder Luke Mitrani broke his neck training last summer in New Zealand, free-falling 30 feet onto his head. Fortunately, doctors managed to insert some of his hip bone through a hole in his throat and he re-learned how to walk. American Simon Dumont, known as “the godfather of freestyle skiing,” was injured during Olympic qualifiers. Russian skicross racer Maria Komissarova got to the Olympics but crashed during practice on the course, and her condition remains “grave,” according to Russian ski federation officials, after she broke her spine. Other athletes such as Norway’s slopestyle favorite Torstein Horgmo, the United Kingdom’s Rowan Cheshire and the United States’ Arielle Gold were also injured out during practice at Sochi immediately before their events. “Injuries and falls are part of this sport, but the timing is really bad,” Horgmo said in a statement.
Some people have defended the courses. They argue that it sorts out the best athletes, who know how to ride in all conditions. After all, these are not indoor sports, and variable conditions are part of the game.
But the athletes are right to speak up. Their lives are at stake.
We know that athletes have been seriously injured during Olympic competition. What we hear less about is how many have died or been gravely hurt on the road there.
One such athlete, Canada’s beloved Sarah Burke, widely considered to be the driving force behind the inclusion of women’s ski halfpipe in Olympic competition for the first time this year, had dedicated her life to making it to Sochi. She fatally crashed during training in 2012. The IOC banned competitors from wearing stickers honoring her. IOC spokesman Adams said that while Burke needs to be remembered, “the competitions themselves, which are a place of celebration, are probably not the right place to really do that and we like to keep that separate.”
Must we suppress the risks and tragedies that athletes face in order to celebrate their achievements? Or does it make their achievements all the more cause for celebration, precisely because they require such sacrifice and courage? What is the responsibility of sport’s governing bodies to their athletes? And to the athletes who are at home watching and being inspired to devote their lives to the dream of coming one day to compete? The conversation about safety needs to keep up with the thrilling pace of the evolution of these new extreme sports that have added so many new disciplines to world-class competition, attracting more and younger viewers.
How did I, a filmmaker, come to care so deeply about young injured Olympic hopefuls? I made a movie that was shortlisted this year for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, about what can go very wrong on the path to the Olympics. “The Crash Reel” tells the story of one of the world’s most respected and beloved snowboarders, Kevin Pearce, and how he and his family grappled with a training accident that left him with a severe traumatic brain injury in the buildup to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Making the film I fell in love with Kevin’s family — including his father, famous glassblower Simon Pearce, and his brother David, who has Down syndrome — as well as the community of creative, soulful, big-hearted athletes who are inventing these new sports as they go. Inspired by the film, we launched a “Love Your Brain” outreach campaign, which aims to bring support and awareness regarding the hidden epidemic of traumatic brain injury.
I have accompanied the film to more than 100 screenings so far. The one I will never forget was at the biggest showcase of the action sports community, the X Games, last year.
It wasn’t our idea to screen it there. The film is probably the opposite of the kind they thought we might be making. We titled it “The Crash Reel” to challenge the culture of “crash reels” that glamorize the “gnarliest” of smash-ups. But somebody at the X Games called me out of the blue. They had heard about our film and wanted it to be the very first movie to screen at the extreme sports competition. They hadn’t actually seen it, though. So a week after we premiered at Sundance last January, the Pearce family and I flew from Salt Lake City to Aspen with a screening copy of our film in our luggage.
At the screening I saw scarves being pulled up to wipe the faces of grieving athletes, with shiny streaks of tears reflecting the light from the screen. Beanies were pulled down to cover eyes from the shots of crashes. Muscular arms hugged thick knees, and heads nodded in recognition. Here was a film that talked honestly about how high the stakes are for them. That showed them unflinchingly what their colleagues had suffered when they crashed, instead of blazing past shots of falling athletes edited to show all the glory and none of the pain.
There was a Q&A after the screening and it was electrifying. One athlete got up and asked “what is our responsibility to ourselves and also to the athletes that look up to us?” That is the question that stays with me as the Sochi Olympic competition winds down.
So when we hear athletes asking about safety, I hope the world will listen respectfully. We owe it to the athletes and to those who look up to them. Because watching the Games unfold on TV are the future competitors who will go on to risk life and limb to pursue Olympic dreams that have been stoked in Sochi.
Walker, a film director, has twice been nominated for an Academy Award. Her work includes “The Crash Reel,” which is now available on iTunes, “Waste Land” and “Countdown to Zero.”