Snowmobile rider's death has X Games under scrutiny
DENVER — For more than a decade, daredevils in snowsuits climbed atop their quarter-ton snowmobiles, sped them up icy ramps and flipped them head over heels into the frosty night air. Fans of action sports cheered while others, less enthralled with the event, wondered whether the sport was a good idea.
It's a question that's getting a much more serious look after last month's Winter X Games, where things went wrong in a serious and tragic way.
One rider, with very little experience on snowmobiles, flew off his vehicle and the machine went careening into the fence, dangerously close to spectators. Another wrecked and separated his pelvis. That rider's brother, 25-year-old Caleb Moore, lost control, landed on his head and, four days later, died from injuries related to the accident.
The tragedy left everyone involved re-examining a niche event in an action-sports world that has, for decades, lured its audience by thumbing its nose at danger.
“That's something we'll all have to deal with,” said Levi LaVallee, whose two gold medals in snowmobiling this year were afterthoughts in the wake of Moore's death. “Unfortunately, the crashes that happened, they're serious ones. You can only pray that that stuff won't happen in future — look at how it happened and see how we can prevent that in the future. It's a tough one for a guy that's passionate about the sport.”
In Aspen, where the event has been held for the past 12 years, regulators have signaled they'll take a new look at the permitting process for the Winter X Games, including the possibility that they'll get more involved in the ins and outs of the actual events, which are usually left to ESPN's discretion.
“ESPN's Safety and Security departments go through a diligent review of all venues for the safety of staff, athletes and spectators,” Scott Guglielmino, ESPN's senior vice president of Programming and X Games, said in a statement sent to The Associated Press.
Among the core issues network officials will have to discuss is whether the thrills, spills and ratings provided by snowmobile tricks are worth the risks that became so apparent in Aspen last month.
Snowmobile jumping is hardly the first sport in which athletes willingly subject themselves to severe and sometimes life-threatening injuries. But even sports such as football and NASCAR, which are an ingrained part of American culture, have been under pressure in recent years to improve safety.
“I guess the question is, do we acknowledge that there are certain sports that are so established that danger has become a fact of life, and are we OK adding more to that list?” said Robert Thompson, a professor who studies popular culture at Syracuse. “But certainly if we said we should not legitimize a sport where the possibility of serious injury or death is there, then we'd have to look carefully at some beloved institutions in this country.”