The casualties are mounting and sport is facing its greatest crisis. How much risk is too much and at what price is “faster, higher, stronger” too dear?
In the space of one year, Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger, lost his life at the Olympics. Then Austrian skier Hans Grugger lost control at the famed downhill ski course in Kitzbuhel and spent weeks in a coma. Now, Sidney Crosby, the bread and butter of the NHL, languishes because of post-concussion syndrome. Lindsey Vonn pulled out of the world alpine ski championships, struggling with a concussion.
So what is acceptable in the pursuit of high-performance sport and reckless disregard for the athlete’s well being?
“It’s the unknown,” says Brian Stemmle, who spent 14 years on the Canadian alpine ski team. “Is the athlete going to win or crash and burn? That’s why I watch. Risk makes it extremely exciting because you have so much to lose.”
Ironically, Stemmle nearly lost his life in a sickening 1989 crash. He was in hospital for three months with a broken pelvis and massive internal injuries. He recovered and competed at three more Olympics. Still, it was a journey that came with a high price.
“My life almost ended because I made a mistake in a place where safety wasn’t up to standard,” Stemmle recounted. “As a parent I wouldn’t want to go through what my parents had to endure.”
That’s why sport on every level has to protect its assets — its athletes — in order to ensure long-term survival.
Therefore, all competitions must meet safety standards. Intentional hits to the head must be abolished. Those not qualified to compete shouldn’t. Officials need to enforce the rules.
“Safety for the athletes needs to be the No. 1 concern,” Stemmle says.
“We also need educated people looking out for us. Doctors, coaches, trainers and therapists need to mitigate injuries by taking precautions. You can’t let an athlete compete who isn’t one hundred per cent (healthy).”
And you can’t let sport become a death-defying game where the laws of the jungle apply.