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 — snowmobilers, other action sports stars, the people who issue the permits and the programmers at ESPN, which sanctions and televises the X Games — 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.
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.
“We permit so many events and they’re all so different in nature, too,” said Mike Kraemer, a planner for the department that handles special event permits in Aspen. “We’ve never had machines go into the crowd. We may need to ask, ‘How can you mitigate for those types of actions?’”
That question, along with equally big issues of rider safety, will be on ESPN’s plate over the upcoming year.
“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. ESPN’s average of 1.1 million viewers for nine telecasts hovers around the same area as the PGA Tour but below that for NBA telecasts.
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.