CBC Sports

Amateur sportsRisk and sport: The nature of the beast

Posted: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | 08:55 PM

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Canada's Sarah Burke, shown in this March 2011 file photo in the French Alps, was injured in during  a training run in Park City Utah on Tuesday. (Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images) Canada's Sarah Burke, shown in this March 2011 file photo in the French Alps, was injured in during a training run in Park City Utah on Tuesday. (Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images)

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Spare a thought for freestyle skier Sarah Burke.  

Pray that she recovers from the fall, which has left her breathing through a tube and in a coma in a Salt Lake City hospital.
Freestyle skier Sarah Burke tragically passed away from injuries sustained in a skiing accident Jan. 10.  

She couldn't recover from the fall, which left her breathing through a tube and in a coma in a Salt Lake City hospital.

Burke was a champion and a pioneer who has led the charge to get Freestyle Halfpipe onto the Olympic program for Sochi 2014.

"In many ways she defines our sport," said Freestyle Canada CEO Peter Judge. "She has been there since the early days."

The trouble was Sarah Burke had to win an even bigger battle in order to realize what she had dreamed of for many years. Hers was a competitive career, with podium finishes in every event she undertook. She had never missed and was quite simply the best on the face of the earth at what she did.

But in sport, even the best are at risk.

On many levels the issue of safety in high performance athletics may well dominate the discussion around water coolers for years to come and in increasing measures. You can bet it won't just be about concussions and hockey, although in Canada what's happened to Sidney Crosby has people everywhere in this country talking.

The dangerous side of all sport is rearing its ugly head. Canadian bobsleigh pilot Chris Spring and two of his teammates were seriously injured in a bad crash at Altenberg, Germany last weekend. It could have been much worse.  Almost exactly a year ago Austrian Hans Grugger nearly died after wiping out at the notorious Kitzbuhel downhill ski race in a training run. He hasn't competed since.

Of course, the case of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger killed at the Whistler Olympics in 2010, is still fresh in everyone's memory. Safety and sport is increasingly becoming the elephant in the room.

"There are inherent risks in any sport," Judge said with reference to what happened to Burke. "There were no safety concerns about the venue.  Freestyle has a good safety record and that's because we had to build a safe sport to get into the Olympics."

The point being is that in sport, accidents happen. They happen because athletes are risking a lot in order to succeed, and that includes their own welfare. 'Risk versus reward' is becoming the most overused cliché in sport.  As everyone knows the athlete who takes the most risk, achieves the highest speed, finds the trickiest line and executes the most difficult jump is the one most likely to be victorious at the end of the day.

This is accepted practice in sport.

"As sports and athletes evolve and limits are exceeded there are bigger risks involved," Jenn Heil, the Olympic gold medal freestyle skier admitted. "But technology, quality of training programs and improved facilities make today's athletes more prepared and allow them to manage the risk responsibly."

Not all danger can be avoided and much of the mystique of sport rests on the reality that the best athletes are excelling at things that many of us mere mortals could never consider undertaking. This is the bottom line. Sport needs to be thrilling to have an allure.

"If you were at the winter Olympics you realized almost all of those events are death defying," said Canadian London 2012 Chef de Mission Mark Tewksbury in a recent Sports Weekend panel discussion.  "The Olympic motto is 'Higher, Faster, Stronger.'

"It's not, almost as high or a little bit faster. That's the nature of the beast."

Still, accepting risk and accepting danger are two different things. All agree that sport in the modern age presents a conundrum. How best to grab the attention of fans while protecting the most valuable resource sport has...namely the athletes themselves?

"I believe international sport federations need to do an annual assessment of safety regulations to ensure athletes are protected," Heil said. "This should include managing and even limiting technology if the gains in technology put athletes in places of unnecessary risk."

In other words, the risk taking should be up to the athletes and the athletes alone.  All other conditions must allow for safe and healthy competition.

For Sarah Burke, it was the harsh reality of sport.  She revelled in the excitement of the game she played so brilliantly.  But as it is with all athletic endeavours, freestyle skiing is at least partly, a game of chance.

It's the nature of the beast.

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