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No Guts, No Glory? The Fear and Attraction of Risky Winter Sports

Illustration of ski-jumpingThe one time I went flying off the side of a mountain on skis, I certainly didn’t mean to.

Before I hit the ground, there was a surprising amount of time for reflection – and more on the long painful schlep down to the ambulance.

The Winter Olympics are here, and I’ll be transfixed with my heart in my mouth, watching ski-jumping and people hurtling downhill at breakneck speed one way and another. And I’m wondering, why are we so attracted to doing, watching and glamorizing dangerous activity? Is it really the thrill of the adrenaline rush, as people say? I hate that part when I take a big risk of any kind.

It turns out I’m not the only one. The popular “thrill-seeker” explanation favored by Marvin Zuckerman and others has been strongly challenged. Thrill-seeking is common in the young, especially young males. Many pay a high price for it. But our relationship with fear, courage and risk-taking is complicated.

Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer asked people aged between 30 and 70, who had been doing an extreme sport for many years, to reflect deeply on the experience. And by “extreme sport” they mean ones where instant death is a distinct possibility every time: like extreme skiing, kayaking off waterfalls and extreme mountaineering. (Consider scaling Everest as an example of extreme risk: about 1 in 10 who get to the top die on the way down.)


Photo of mountaineering

For these people, it wasn’t that they didn’t feel fear, or that they were attracted to the feeling of fear. They saw fear as an important tool to identify danger – and working through it was a transformative, even transcendental, experience. Part of the reward was the sense of one-ness with nature that lay beyond the fear.

Increasingly dangerous challenges required ever-greater mastery. That sense of achievement led to an increasing sense of personal uniqueness and self-actualization. It gave them confidence, enabled them to handle other fearful or stressful life events. And this has been found in other studies too, for example among rock-climbers and trained athletes in more and less risky sports.

For me, reading what these research participants said was enlightening and there was a lot that was easy to relate to. But it also seemed as though they believed they were only taking on risks over which they could prevail. Presumably, many of the people who are grievously injured thought so too. I wonder if many who draw the short straw regret it?

I have an almost total lack of mastery of winter sports. That’s not surprising, since I could just about count the number of times I’ve done them on my fingers and toes. The contrast between my enthusiasm and lack of skill accounts for the somewhat spectacular accident at the start of this post. But just what kind of risks are we talking about with winter sports more commonly and at Olympic level?

Photo of luge


For perspective, let’s look at micromorts, a way to consider small but lethal risks. A micromort is a one-in-a-million chance of death. (To see how these one-off risks relate to risks from smoking, for example, have a look at microlives.)

Measured in micromorts, a day of ordinary skiing carries about the same risk as horse-riding – and far less than scuba-diving or hang-gliding. Sky-diving, marathon running and about 60 miles on a motor bike carry similar micromort risk to scuba-diving.

And Olympic level? No one’s died during a Winter Olympics event, but two each have died in ski and luge practice at the Olympics.

The rate of injury at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games was just over 11% of the athletes – higher than at the Summer Games, including about double the concussion rate (7% of winter Olympians). It’s not the ski-jumping where the particularly high risk lies. Snowboarding causes the highest rate of injury. Behind that come bobsledding (bobsledding, skeleton and luge), ice hockey, short-track skating, ice hockey and freestyle skiing. The risk increases the greater the speed: the injury risk in skiing is 4 times as high for downhill as slalom.

The risk of concussion is higher in ice hockey than it is in football, for example. But how about other non-elite winter recreational sport?


Photo of bob sled
After my one bob sled ride, Olympic Center, Lake Placid NY


This tourist picture was taken in Lake Placid after my one bobsled experience. As I signed the injury waiver, the extent of my mental calculation of risk was a not-so-scientific, “They wouldn’t be doing this if it was dangerous, right? Right.” Crikey! (Incidentally, it seems nowhere near as fast, scary or long on YouTube as in person.)

This photo includes important elements that affect estimates of safety in winter sports: the vast range of competence (with me ably representing the idiot faction!), and the helmet.

The difference in competence makes it hard to assess and generalize risks. Consider snowboarding: elite snowboarders have far fewer accidents than recreational snowboarders – but their injuries are more severe. Helmets have been recommended for snowboarding and skiing.

A few years ago, Brian Chaze and Patrick McDonald gathered published data on head injuries in winter sports. They advocated helmet use for sledding and skating as well.

Children who hurt their heads sledding need hospitalization twice as much as for head injuries in other sports. It’s the combination of speed, collisions, and hitting the head on ice. The same goes for children ice skating. Helmets aren’t used much, though.

Perhaps the best take-away from watching the winter Olympians is not the glamor of their risk-taking, but the way they rock those helmets.


The cartoon ski-jumper is my original.

The mountaineering photo (black and white) is taken on the Hochkönig, Austria by Harald Hofer. (From Wikimedia Commons.)

The photo of the luge is by Jokernel in Wikimedia Commons.

The photo of bobsled, me, professional driver and brakeman is from the Lake Placid Olympic Center Bobsled Experience at Whiteface Mountain, NY.

The original version of this post was on Scientific American, and its In-Depth Report Science at the Sochi Olympics


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

  1. Thanks for adding that link, Andrew: different questions, but it’s been a long time since I looked properly at that one. Sure to at some point, probably when the next study lands.

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