The things extreme athletes endure in their desire to compete…

As we watch the Winter Olympics unfold and gasp in awe at the sheer brilliance of some of the manoeuvres and in horror at some of the falls, it is worth noting the consequences that these extreme athletes risk to compete in these events – not merely to compete but to prove to themselves that they really are good at what they love doing…

To give you an idea of how horrendous these crashes can be, please  follow this linkg and watch Todd Brooker’s crash at Kitzbuhel in 1987. He lived to tell the tale. In fact on a forum recently where people were asking  ‘did he…’ or ‘didn’t he…’? He answered personally: “hey guys, just to confirm, that was my fall in Kitzbuhel in 1987 and yes, i am still very much alive”. (Jan. 24th 2009)

A catalogue of accidents and serious injuries this winter has offered sober reminders of what can happen when would-be Olympians, emboldened by technological advances in equipment, seek to push the boundaries of speed and complexity in their events to ever more hazardous levels.

Here’s a montage of competitive ski accidents from sportsnetwork. There are some terrible videos out there such as Scott Macartney’s and Daniel Albrecht’s crashes at Kitzbuhel, but I’ll spare you those.

Injuries followed by surgery that are regularly seen with winter sports are:  alpine skiers with multiple back surgeries, mogul athletes where it has been known for some skiers to have had two surgeries ON EACH KNEE. Luge athletes with multiple back surgeries, to name just a few.

The Vancouver Olympics have been similarly affected. Canada’s world downhill champion John Kucera snapped the tibia and fibula of his left leg when turning somersaults into the safety fence at 65mph at Lake Louise, in Alberta and will not be participating in these Olympics. Others missing are American half-pipe snowboarder Kevin Pearce who is on the long road to recovery from a brain injury suffered when failing to land an ambitious jump during training and, tragically, the same applies to Florent Astier, a French ski cross exponent who crashed into a fellow racer last month and ended up requiring emergency surgery after suffering a severe spinal cord injury and paralysis.

Steve Nyman, a Utah native and downhill skier in these Olympics, has been struggling for 2 years with knee and ankle injuries – but is this enough to stop him? Hell, no. Erik Fisher has been skiing at Vancouver with his ski pole duct-taped to his right hand after he broke it earlier in the season and was left with limited mobility.

When an athlete chooses to go professional he or she does so with the full understanding of the price he might have to pay.

Many of the sports undertaken in the Winter Olympics are inherently dangerous. The “downhill” discipline, for example, involves the highest speeds and therefore the greatest risks of all the alpine events. Racers on a typical international-level course will exceed speeds of 130 km/hr (81 mph) and some courses, such as the famous Lauberhorn course in Wengen, Switzerland, and the Hahnenkamm course in Kitzbühel, Austria, speeds of up to 150 km/hr (93 mph) in certain sections are expected.

Despite safety precautions, such as safety netting and padding where race officials anticipate crashes, the ski racing community is well aware of the risks of serious injury or even death while practicing or competing in downhill skiing. Two downhill-related deaths on the World Cup in recent years were those of Austrian Ulrike Maier in 1994 and Frenchwoman Régine Cavagnoud in 2001. Also in 2001, Swiss downhiller Silvano Beltrametti was paralyzed in a high-speed crash.

The amount of time spent perfecting their skills only adds to the likelihood that they will encounter some type of injury. The drive to achieve in competitive sport is nothing new, and does not happen exclusively at the Games, but also every day in training, because one slip-up could mean that some other equally-driven athlete gets your spot on the national team.

It’s not only physical injuries that need to be taken into consideration in major international events. Psychological ones can impact too. Canadian athletes generally go about their business without too much media attention, but in the 6-months lead-up to the Olympics they were inundated with the question “Do you think you can win?”

From an athlete and coach perspective, competing successfully at an Olympic Games is not an easy task. The pressure on athletes to perform is varied and enormous, coming from friends and family, sponsors, the national sports organization, the country, and the athlete’s own expectations. This is one of the reasons that many athletes, coaches, and teams have turned to sport psychology consultants,medical doctors and other sport science experts in exercise physiology, biomechanical analysis, physiotherapy, and strength and conditioning to help ensure a good performance on the day it counts.

These athletes are highly motivated individuals fueled by their sense of ambition and achievement. Most, if not all, just want to be the best in the world at what they do, and hang the consequences. The “perks”, such as endorsements and personal appearance fees that come from having Olympic success are a bonus but would not be enough to motivate someone to do something extremely dangerous if they did not love the sport.

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