TO WATCH Canadian freeskier Sarah Burke’s gold medal-winning superpipe run from last year’s X-Games in Aspen, Colorado, is to see that rarest of things: an athlete at the absolute peak of their powers doing something mind-bogglingly difficult and not only making it look easy, but also making it look fun.
After building momentum with a huge, swooping straight air on the left wall of the pipe, she hits the right wall and launches into her first big manoeuvre – a 900-degree spin so fast it’s impossible to make sense of the mid-air rotations without watching them in slow motion.
At her highest point, she’s 11ft above the top of the pipe, which is itself 22ft off the ground. Then it’s straight into a beautiful, slow reverse 360 that sees her rotating nonchalantly backwards while floating effortlessly forwards. Next, she turns herself upside down for a flare – a sort of tucked-in mid-air cartwheel – pulls the same move again on the opposite wall, and finally rounds things off with a cork 720, taking off forwards, landing backwards, then skidding to a halt, throwing her arms in the air and flashing an enormous Cheshire Cat smile in the direction of her proud family and friends cheering from the stands. The win was by no means Burke’s first taste of success, but at the time she told reporters that it had made her “happier than any other win I’ve ever had”.
Burke was fatally injured on 10 January this year, almost exactly 12 months on from her X-Games triumph. She had been attempting a relatively easy trick by her standards – a flat spin 540 – during a training session at Park City, Utah, when she fell and tore her vertebral artery, causing a severe brain haemorrhage. She died nine days later, surrounded by family, at the University of Utah Hospital.
Burke’s death has robbed skiing of one of its most colourful characters and also one of its most fearsome competitors – she was hotly tipped to win gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. But it has also re-ignited a long-standing debate about the risks involved in extreme sports, with some commentators suggesting the dangers competitors subject themselves to have simply become too great.
News outlets from USA Today to Canada’s CBC Sports have recently carried stories questioning whether there shouldn’t be tighter regulation for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. The CBC story quotes American snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2009 during a training session at the same Park City superpipe where Burke was injured. “These sports have just gotten to this level that’s so high, it’s just beyond safe,” he said.
So are extreme skiers being exploited? Are they the modern-day equivalents of gladiators, risking their lives to provide vicarious thrills for the masses? And does it say something negative about us as a society when we reward people with money and fame for putting their lives at risk, not in the name of justice or self-defence, as in a war, but simply in the name of entertainment?
I suppose the key question here is: would these people still be doing the same thing if there was no money involved – no sponsors giving them free gear, no TV cameras recording their every twist and flip, nobody in Oklahoma running out to buy a T-shirt with their name on it? And the simple answer is yes, absolutely.
Go to any major ski resort anywhere in the world, find out where the park for advanced riders is, then sit yourself down on the sidelines and watch. From Winter Park to Whistler, Avoriaz to Aviemore, kids all over the world are hurling themselves into the air all day, every day, all winter long, and for no other reason than because they get a massive kick out of it. You want to try and regulate freestyle skiing competitions more tightly? Fine, you might prevent a few injuries among elite competitors, but you’ll stifle the growth of a spectacular sport, and you still won’t stop thousands of young airheads throwing themselves off giant kickers every weekend. Want to close down all the parks in all the resorts as well? Fine. The kids will simply go elsewhere and build their own jumps. What’s that? You want to stop people skiing and snowboarding? Good luck. You’d have more chance of getting them to give up sex.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
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