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Faster, stronger – deadlier: Why do elite athletes sneer at risk and tempt the gods, and why do we encourage them?

Sports that demand speed are more dangerous than those that require stamina. Case in point: Swedish slopestyle skier Henrik Harlaut during a qualifying round at Sochi.

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

On Dec. 28, 2010, 15 seconds into the infamous World Cup downhill run at Bormeo, Italy, Louis-Pierre Hélie, skiing for Canada as the 13th best downhiller in the world, caught an edge while travelling 144 kilometres an hour.

He landed on his head – so hard that his body instinctively contracted into the fetal position, an autonomic reaction doctors call "cocooning." It probably saved his life. Mr. Hélie woke up as he was being lifted into a rescue helicopter, and spent three days in hospital as doctors monitored his concussion, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, and a patch of bleeding in his brain the size of a quarter.

When he went back to downhill six months later, things were understandably different. "In World Cup skiing, everybody is really good technically," he says today. "But 80 per cent is probably confidence, and how you approach the hill. I was missing the little bit extra you need in a race." He joined Canada's national ski cross team instead.

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The average speed in ski cross, after all, is only 80 km an hour. "It just feels a bit more comfortable, knowing you're going a bit slower." There are still head-spinning 150-foot jumps and groin-splitting hairpins and bowel-clenching collisions (they draw many fans) as four elite skiers try to navigate the gates of a course as fast as possible at the same time. Ski cross resembles downhill roller derby. In 2012, two months after Canadian freestyle champion Sarah Burke died after severing her vertebral artery while attempting a half-pipe manoeuvre on skis, Mr. Hélie's teammate Nik Zoricic was killed in a famous ski cross crash. "It was a big shock to me," Mr. Hélie says, "and still is."

But he keeps competing in life-threatening winter sports, like other elite athletes, however much the sport establishment tries to pretend otherwise. Last week, the International Olympic Committee told snowboarders at Sochi they couldn't wear decals of Sarah Burke's name on their helmets, in memory of her death. No need to talk about that! At Craigleith Ski Club north of Toronto, where Nik Zoricic was once a member, kids zoom around with the initials NZ on their headgear.

A reasonable question is why. Why do elite athletes sneer at risk and tempt the gods, and why do we encourage them? Why were we willing to accept the National Hockey League's claim that brains could be bopped about like bolas and still be perfectly fine, or the National Football League's long-standing pretence that dementia was for sissies? Where did we find this notion that it's an expression of human aspiration at its fastest, strongest and highest to risk permanent injury and even death in pursuit of a triple somersault on skis? And why, when snowboarder Shaun White dropped out of Sochi's slopestyle competition last week, citing the danger of the course, did we bring down an avalanche of sneering taunts, the nastiest of them Canadian, on his tomato-colored head? Admittedly, Olympic alpine skiing has always been dangerous, and the Shaunster can be a little precious. But our lust for dangerous sports makes us look like a nation of Neros, thirsting for the blood of the physically gifted. No wonder athletes have started to fight back.

'A heavy thing to do'

Risk in sport has been a concern since at least the 1920s, when rowing and running were thought to strain the heart. (It was an upper-class concern; no one cared about boxers.) But it's almost as difficult to measure sporting risk as it is to do anything about it – especially when it's decorated with the hyper-commercialized, super-optimistic, high-definiton, colour-saturated, dissent-smothering excelsior of the Olympics. Sound the trumpet voluntary, please.

Still, some things we know. Sports that demand speed or acrobatic skills – downhill racing, trick skiing, snowboarding – are more dangerous than sports that require mere stamina. Michael Schumacher, the Formula 1 champion, survived hundreds of car races, but he has been in critical condition in hospital in France following a ski accident at a resort Dec. 29.

Many researchers consider snowboarding even more dangerous than skiing because it's newer. A study in California found that 49 per cent of injured snowboarders were beginners, versus 18 per cent of injured skiers. If you really want to avoid a head injury, though, slow down. Roald Bahr, the head of the Oslo Sports Trauma Research Centre at the Norwegian School of Sports Science, found that racing downhill at 128 kilometres an hour is more dangerous than ski jumping at 80. Velocity kills.

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If we know that some sports injure and kill, and you agree that we inhabit a culture that promotes athletic risk beyond reason or safety, the next question might be – who constructs the culture of support for that risk? And so, ladies and gentlemen, may I present: the sports-industrial complex!

The NHL and NFL resisted warnings about the dangers of concussions for a long time because fights and head-snapping hits drew fans. The International Olympic Committee has been similarly culpable. It was the IOC that approved the deadly Whistler sliding course that killed luger Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia on the first day of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver; that doubled the crippling height of the walls of a halfpipe from 11 to 22 feet; that sanctioned the monstrous jumps in the slopestyle course that so far at Sochi have produced at least one serious concussion and a broken jaw. Fear and pain and danger, according to the official mythology of sport, are the price of glory.

"Athletes are really good at denial," Dr. Bruce Kidd, the former Olympian long-distance runner who now teaches at the University of Toronto, told me the other day. "And denial can be a really healthy thing. But it's not always a good thing."

To understand this you need only watch The Crash Reel, Lucy Walker's wrenching 2013 feature documentary about the snowboarding rivalry between Shaun White – who turns out to be a loner and a businessman – and the charismatic, extroverted, but equally talented Kevin Pearce. The two athletes were neck and neck until 2010, when shortly before the Vancouver Olympics, Mr. Pearce landed a trick face-down and suffered a traumatic brain injury on the same half-pipe that killed Sarah Burke two years later. (Sarah Burke is still alive for most of the film, to chilling effect.) As Shaun White says in The Crash Reel, of any given trick in a halfpipe, "You don't really know what's going to happen. And that's a really heavy thing to do."

Kevin Pearce will never completely recover from his accident, which cracked his memory and smeared his eyesight and forced him to stop snowboarding professionally. (He earned tens of thousands of dollars a month at the peak of his snowboarding career.) Three years later, he has come to accept his more vulnerable state, but his hard-won grace – life as a disabled person is much more challenging than it was as an elite snowboarder – still doesn't register with his friends, who are still professional boarders, who still can't put words to why they keep doing what keeps paralyzing and killing them, who clearly think bad things will never happen to them. No one wants to relinquish their identity as an elite boarder and athlete, much less the $4-billion-a-year snow sport game. And no one wants to give up the pleasure of a physical gift so rare and seductive and god-like that most of us can't begin to understand it. Most of us shy away from the physically unpredictable. Athletes don't.

Which is why we revere them. We, the average, long to feel the edge that runs between victory and defeat, success and failure, even life and death – is that going too far? – and so we pay our best athletes to dance that ridge in more and more dramatic ways. The term for a run in a halfpipe, after all, is "dropping in," i.e. from above. Shaun White's signature move is his double McTwist 1260 – two flips, and 540 degrees of horizontal spin, performed plunging up and off the edge of a vertical wall. Kevin Pearce's slopestyle specialty was the double cork 1440 – two flips and two 360-rotations through the air, which has been described as the equivalent of being thrown out of the third floor of a house at 30 mph. A double cork was once revolutionary, but these days it's just the ante into the Olympic game. According to The Crash Reel, Mr. White had a hard time at first landing it safely. He is also known to have hurt his ankle in the run up to Sochi, which may have contributed to his decision to skip the slopestyle competition. But why would anyone criticize him for choosing not to run the risk of injuring or paralyzing himself?

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Parissa Safai, an associate professor of kinesiology at York University in Toronto, thinks Mr. White's refusal is the first whiff of a bubbling conflict. She's currently editing a book on the subject, called Health and Elite Sport: Is High-Performance Sport a Healthy Pursuit?

"We're starting to see the developers of the games pushing them even more, and these athletes having to either suck it up, or, in the case of Shaun White, saying, 'I don't want to participate.'" (If Mr. White had been less successful, he probably couldn't have refused.) "I think the games get romanticized to the neglect of rational study of whether these athletes are risking their life and limbs."

'Honest uncertainty'

Make no mistake: Prof. Saffai is no fun-crushing wuss. "The answer isn't to sit here and say, no, no, no Olympics. Because there is something to be said for risk. If athletes don't push themselves, we risk not seeing the human body in its fullness and glory. I cannot deny the thrill of watching them do these things with their bodies, the genuine and honest uncertainty of the outcome – I think this is the appeal of sport throughout history. I don't mean to advocate that we bubble-wrap everyone."

What does bother her, she says, is a lack of transparency. Gladiatorial contests were employed in ancient Rome to distract the mob from political protest, and Prof. Saffai feels something similar is going on today at the Olympics. "My question is, who profits from this? And my answer is, not the athletes."

Very little public outrage followed Nodar Kumaritashvili's death on his luge: the glum silence of that day was quickly replaced by the Canadian sport establishment's crowing about owning the podium.

We could have asked some serious political questions. Why did the 2010 Olympics, touted as a $10-billion boon to the British Columbia economy, add only $2.6-billion to its GDP? Why did we spend $6.4-billion on those same games when there aren't enough houses for the elderly and the disabled (crippled snowboarders among them)? What's with Russians and gays, and why are we abetting the former's prejudice against the latter at Sochi? Instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by the widely-shared fantasy that winning lots of Olympic medals in winter sports gives us more power and influence in the world.

Athletes, Prof. Saffai believes, are the pawns in that fantasy. "My concern is the way athletes are being used, and not being safeguarded by the system," she says. "We have athletes who are banding together around their human rights, on the LGBT issue. What if athletes were to band together over their health? If we can't guarantee healthful sport, then let's at least guarantee that the athletes have as clear an understanding as possible of what they're doing." What's needed, she feels "is a more honest assessment of what the Games are about. Which is this hyper-commercialized, hyper-commodified spectacle."

The re-assessment is beginning to happen in high-level sport, however tentatively. Last August, the NFL and 4,000 former players settled a head-injury lawsuit for $760 million, a number likely to increase before the settlement is finalized. Meanwhile, 200 players have joined a concussion lawsuit against the NHL.

The culture of risk is being addressed in snow sports too. Since Nik Zoricic's much-publicized death, Louis-Pierre Hélie says, "if there's an issue with a World Cup ski-cross course, the athletes get together and make it happen to get it changed. The safety and the risk are not the same as they were three years ago."

That outspokenness, the fledgling unwillingness of our best athletes to subsume their health to the old cliché of courage and obedience at all costs – whether by coming out, complaining about their dementia, or refusing to compete – is the new wave in elite athletics. It's also what makes Shaun White's refusal to compete in a dangerous slopestyle event noteworthy, and offensive to many spectators – who expect athletes to obey the tyranny of the market and satisfy their primal longings. "In my opinion," Mr. Hélie says, "it was the smartest thing to do, for him."

Shaun White did what athletes, with their lifelong training and their respect for discipline and coaches and orders and authority, have so rarely done until now. He spoke up. How totally rad was that, dude?

Ian Brown is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.

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