Athletes are actors in sports' tragedies

John Leicester - Associated Press
PARIS — By the fourth round it already was clear — although not to Nick Blackwell himself — that he was going to lose. Chris Eubank Jnr.'s uppercuts were snapping Blackwell's head violently backward, like a crash-test dummy slammed into a wall. But because the British middleweight champion kept coming back for more, the referee allowed the savage beating to continue for another six rounds until Blackwell's left eye was so grotesquely swollen that a ringside doctor ruled he couldn't continue.
Incredibly brave.
And imprudent. Doctors kept Blackwell in an induced coma all of last week, after he collapsed post-fight in the ring.
The luge track for the 2010 Winter Olympics terrified Nodar Kumaritashvili. In his first 20 training runs, the Georgian crashed twice. Yet on Feb. 12, 2010, Kumaritashvili again launched himself down the 1,379 meters (4,524 feet) of ice with 16 banked curves.
Incredibly brave.
And imprudent. Catapulted off the track in a crash, Kumaritashvili slammed into a metal post and was killed .
Fingers of blame inevitably point first to the administrators of sports — rather than those who take part in them — when athletes are killed and seriously injured. And rightly so, because any death, any lasting injury, must always be one too many. Still, when the athletes are adults and competing of their own free will, then they also are actors, sharing some of the responsibility, in the tragedies and accidents that befall them. To say that is not to be willfully cold and uncaring. Rather, it points out that any discussion about safety in sports isn't solely about managing and minimizing risks, but also about running them.
The only way to make sports entirely risk-free would be to scrap them. Some would do that with boxing, for the reasons integral to every fight: the sadomasochistic violence, the deliberate doling out and enduring of sometimes deadly, and too often permanent, physical damage. But where, then, does one draw the line? Phillip Hughes was killed in 2014 by a cricket ball that freakishly, somehow, struck the Australian batsman on the small area on his neck that wasn't protected by his helmet. If all deaths and permanent injuries are unacceptable, should cricket also be abolished?
Most would say not. Because nearly everyone accepts that risks are part of life, even desirable — because running risks can make one feel alive. Where people disagree is how much risk is acceptable. And that is and must be a choice as personal as sexual orientation or politics. I may not agree with the risks you take, but I'll defend to the death your right to take them.
And pay money to watch you take them. Because our own voyeurism — watching others do things we wouldn't — is also part of the oh-so-delicate balance of risk in sports. Not enough, or too much, and fans may look elsewhere for the adrenaline fix of watching other people endanger life and limb.
Often, the poorest judges of risk are athletes themselves. They grow into risk like a stretchy speed suit, ramping it up, ever faster, ever higher, ever stronger until the difficulties and dangers hit levels that mere mortals neither have the skills to manage nor the stomachs to accept.
So, above all, athletes need protecting from themselves. In his sport that revels in poking peril in the eye, snowboarder Shaun White looked unusually sane — but chicken to some social media trolls — when he pulled out of the slopestyle competition at the 2014 Sochi Olympics because the course was too risky for him. Erring on the safe side certainly made White exceptional. No medal or prize is ever worth serious hurt. But without any risk is life much of a life?
Every death, every grave injury, every brush with tragedy — like the Blackwell fight — must be a lesson to sports administrators and athletes alike, who should always be looking at how to make the expression of their skills and passions as safe as possible. Sports history is sadly littered with too many examples of needless deaths that might — but perhaps only might — in hindsight have been avoided.
Although they hare down Alpine passes and race wheel-to-wheel at breakneck speeds, road racers in cycling didn't have to wear hard helmets until Kazakh rider Andrei Kivilev fractured his unprotected skull and was killed at the Paris-Nice race in 2003. That was 12 years after the bulk of pro riders rejected a proposal to make helmets compulsory.
Formula One only made seatbelts obligatory in 1972. Some drivers previously thought it preferable to be thrown from a crashing car.
In downhill skiing, the wearing of crash helmets at the 1960 Winter Olympics followed the death from a skull fracture of Canadian racer John Semmelink the previous year.
Unwittingly, in an editorial at the time that mourned Semmelink, the Montreal Gazette put its finger on the safety challenge inherent to sports.
"He died," it said, "doing what he loved best."

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