A week ago at the Winter X Games, 25-year-old Caleb Moore was in the midst of a stellar run. The three-time medalist was putting on a clinic in the finals of Snowmobile Freestyle. He was landing flips and body varials, and he seemed destined for the podium. Then everything went wrong.
He hit one of his last jumps a little too slowly and under-rotated his backflip. The snowmobile's skis dug in; he went flying over the handlebars, and then the 450-pound machine rolled over him. He hobbled off the field with a concussion, then later developed bleeding around his heart. Things were looking good for a while, but now there seems to be a complication involving his brain. The kid's grandfather has said publicly that it's "almost certain he's not going to make it." [Update: Caleb Moore has died.]
If Caleb doesn't survive, his will be the first death in the 18-year history of the X Games. The way action sports are evolving, the next 18 years won't be so peaceful. I've been a longtime fan of the games, but this was my first year in attendance. As I watched these athletes fly over my head, it really hit home just how miraculous the zero-casualty rate was. "Maybe it's safer than it looks," I thought for a brief moment. And then they started dropping like planes over Midway.
Caleb Moore's was the first and worst crash I saw, but he was followed closely by his younger brother, 23-year-old Colten Moore, who crashed on the exact same jump and separated his pelvis. The next night I watched as snowboarder Halldór Helgason attempted a laid-out triple backflip in the snowboard big air event. He flew 75 feet and then landed on his head. Everyone thought for sure he'd snapped his neck, but he'd been lucky and was carted off with only a concussion. On Sunday, slopestyle skier Rose Battersby, 19 years old, missed a landing off a jump and fractured her lower lumbar spine. At first she appeared to be paralyzed, and on TV you could see her being transported down the slope in what looked frighteningly like a yellow body bag. Another slopestyle skier, 25-year-old Ashley Battersby (no relation to Rose) broke her leg during her final run. In the snowmobile best trick competition, Jackson Strong, 21, missed a grab on an insane backflipping varial and thudded to the ground some 30 feet below. Strong was fine, somehow, but his snowmobile's throttle locked on, and it charged full-speed into the crowd. No one was hurt.
On the ground, the crowd careens between extreme elation when an athlete sticks a big move and abject horror when they crash. The sound the fans make isn't the sound you hear at NFL games after a big hit. It's more like a collective gut-punch. Everyone just sags. Even the Red Bull-powered juvenile delinquents stop calling each other "faggot" long enough to stiffen to attention, trying to absorb what they've just witnessed. Extreme sports fans get off on the threat of violence, not its arrival.
I spoke with fans, athletes, and contest personnel who have attended every single X Games since 1995. It was a variation of the same conversation every time. "All of these guys are crazy, but those snowmobile guys, that's a whole other level of crazy." Even the snowboarders—people who are doing switch backside triple cork 1440s off a gigantic ramp—thought so. But the prevailing sentiment, the one that could be heard in the stands and on the shuttle buses and even in the douchey bars of Aspen, was: It's amazing that no one has died yet. [Update: As a commenter has pointed out, I was remiss in not mentioning freeskier Sarah Burke, who died last year after a superpipe crash while training for the X Games.]
When discussing these injuries, the athletes and spectators all expressed sadness, sympathy, even fear—but there was no surprise. They know as well as anyone that the X Games have only gotten more dangerous. It has nothing to do with the parks. In fact, every skier and boarder I talked to said the superpipe, big air, and slopestyle courses were the best they had ever been on. ESPN and the event sponsors have ramped up the medical staff, and the athletes' equipment has gotten better and better. The reason the X Games are increasingly risky is because every year it requires more to win. Each year somebody pulls off an incredible stunt nobody has ever done before (think Tony Hawk's 900 in X Games 5 or Travis Pastrana's double-backflip on a motorcycle in X Games 12), and each year the bar is raised, and each year the athletes have to brush closer against the upper limit of their capabilities. They have to go bigger if they want to win, whether they have the skills to or not. Maybe even whether they want to or not. Fame, glory, and big Burton endorsement deals are very sexy sirens.
Even ESPN seems to sense that things are starting to get out of control. The network used to milk the danger element of the X Games for all it was worth. In 2007, during the X Games 13 skateboarding big air event, when Jake Brown dropped an estimated 47 feet to the floor, spectators thought they'd just witnessed someone die. I'll never forget that moment. I was on a cross-country JetBlue flight, and other passengers were watching, too. Several men screamed when it happened. ESPN, for its part, played that clip from every angle, over and over again, for the duration of the games. When he returned for competition a year later, the announcers excitedly recalled his plunge as the "slam seen 'round the world." It was borderline sadistic.
This year everything was different. ESPN would replay the crash once or twice just after it had happened, and that was it. If you wanted to see it again (you sick bastard) you had to trawl the internet. Maybe that's the tasteful option—nobody needs to witness that kind of pain over and over again—but ESPN's shift seems more like self-preservation than sensitivity: keep the cameras away from all the twisted limbs so sponsors and advertisers don't see what the sport's become. As a result, a gap has opened up between how the X Games are broadcast and how they're talked about elsewhere in the media. Search Google News for "X Games" right now, and you'll have to scroll way, way down before you learn that Shaun White managed to win snowboard superpipe gold an incredible six times in a row. Before that the stories are all crashes, injuries, earnest chinstroking over whether or not the X Games have "gone too far."
This was an inevitable point in action sports, whose evolution has been uniquely accelerated by the internet. The X Games may be the biggest event, but it's no longer the biggest platform. The internet, and YouTube in particular, has created a sort of X Games writ large, an ongoing, unsanctioned competition in which anyone can compete and anyone can get instantly famous for doing progressively more dangerous things on camera. Big brands are routinely finding new athletes to sponsor that way. And instead of the relatively plodding quadrennial one-upsmanship of Olympic sports, extreme sport athletes are pushing each other daily to go higher and faster.
Judging at the X Games is more subjective than at the Olympics, but the results are the same. Style and cleanliness of execution being equal, the person who goes bigger gets the nod—and it certainly makes for more compelling television. The only thing that could reduce the number of injuries would be the athletes collectively agreeing that "X feet is high enough, and N degrees is enough rotation, so let's just focus on style and precision."
That will never happen. Not at the X Games, and not at the Olympics. We will continue to see our athletes go bigger and bigger and fall harder and harder. People have died at the Olympics, and eventually someone will die at the X Games. It's not if; it's when. Everyone there knows it's inevitable. Everyone hopes it's not him or her, hopes it's not his or her friend. Everyone certainly hopes it won't be Caleb Moore. But at some point soon, the sport will have to have an honest reckoning with itself: Are we really trying to prevent these deaths, or are we just trying to prevent them from happening on live TV?
Brent Rose is a freelance writer for Gizmodo, Outside Magazine, Men's Health, Men's Journal, and Backpacker. Follow him on Twitter.