Risk And Reward In Sport

Many a summer evening in my teenaged years were spent doing archery.  Back in the day, I was reasonably good.  Then a broken collarbone happened I seemed to be spending so much time running the club that I didn’t really get time to do any shooting myself and things went downhill.

From a participator point of view, archery is perhaps one of the safest sports there is.  It is non-contact and, considering its similarity to weight lifting, the risk of muscular injury is pretty low with little in the way of joint rotation.  One thing that was always worth remembering, though, was that this was a sport involving projectile weapons that were designed to kill animals and other people.

So here’s a question – at what point does risk become acceptable?

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A good place to start is Formula 1, probably as representative if many types of motorsport.  This is people driving heavy machines really fast.

In 67 years of F1, there have been 41 deaths (not including Indianapolis).  Thirty seven of those deaths came in there first 33 years, with “only” 4 occurring in the next third of a century.  This shows how seriously the sport has taken safety in later years.

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A lot of early focus was placed on infrastructure such as service roads at the circuits, a medical helicopter and how the starting grid was staggered.  Attention then moved to the cars.  It was 1972 before seat belts became mandatory!  (Previously, drivers thought they were safest if they were thrown from the car in the event of an accident.)  In 1985 cockpit crash tests began and have become ever more strict.  In the 90’s, the Powers That Be that tried to slow the cars down with less aerodynamic downforce, smaller engines and grooved tyres.

The sport has got safer, but at which stage should we stop being so risk averse.  Some people in F1 should be always be protected – spectators, marshals and pit crews although the latter have signed up to some degree of risk. The drivers, though, are a different story.  They enter the cockpit knowing that there is risk and potential for injury or even death.  Such potential is inherent in such a sport as one of the reasons that the drivers are held in such high regard by their fans.

Despite cars getting faster for the 2017 season, head protection is still high on the agenda with further tests on a halo system due to happen before its introduction in 2018.

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The halo is designed to lessen the risk of head injury such as that suffered by Felipe Massa in 2009 when he was struck on the head by a spring that had fallen off Ruben Barrichello’s Brawn while Massa was approaching 175mph. A thought that has been mooted is that drivers would be exposed to even less risk if they weren’t in the car at all.  What if development was focussed on autonomous F1 cars, super bikes, rally cars? Or even if drivers were required but could sit in the safety of a room while piloting their machine using VR technology?

If that were to happen, how do we start redefining the boundaries of what sport actually is?

I’m going to step away from motorsport and in to the realms of something I know from experience – football (soccer to international readers!).  Over the last weekend in the game between Manchester United and Bournemouth, there were several interesting incidents.

The first came when Bournemouth captain Andrew Surman was booked for a tackle on Luke Shaw.

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I can’t find a video, but as you can see from the picture, it was tackle in which both players went for the ball.  One came off worse but, as a (amateur) player myself, this is something you accept as part of the game and isn’t something you can be nervous about when you’re playing.  Unfortunately the game is ceasing to be a contact sport and Surman was punished with a yellow card and a free kick for Manchester United.

Then came two related incidents.  Bournemouth defender Tyrone Mings went in for a tackle and managed to knock over two Manchester United players in the process.  As Mings got up off the floor, he stood on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s head.  Common consensus is that the stamp was on purpose.

A few minutes later, Ibrahimovic elbowed Mings in the head while challenging for a header.

Both incidents are risks that should be mitigated against, but both are within the playing culture of the game which accepts certain levels of physical contact that would be against the law if it happened off the pitch.

Perhaps the major sporting event of that weekend was the boxing match between David Haye and Tony Bellew.  David Haye was the favourite despite coming out of retirement for the fight, while Tony Bellew was having to go up weight divisions from cruiser weight to heavy weight.

Bellew pulled off a shock with an 11th round stoppage after Haye’s team threw in the towel.  Haye was winning on points until the sixth round when he became hampered by an achilles injury, visibly limping round the ring.  At one stage his leg was taped up for support.

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It later emerged that Bellew had suffered an injury of his own, breaking his hand (presumably by punching Haye’s face) in the second or third round.  Given the massive amounts of ill feeling between the pair in the build up to the fight, this was essentially to injured men trying to knock each other unconscious.  This is very much in the culture of their chosen sport, but is it actually sport at all?

When it comes to sport, I think there is a duty to reduce risk to reasonable levels, but not to remove it totally to the extent that the culture of the game as everyone knows it is removed.  Our elite sports people are talented and idolised by many, but they are idolised as much for their attitude in the face of risk as for their skill.  The technique and the talent is honed to limit risk as much as possible whether that be in sports such as F1 or football or boxing, or non-contact individual sports such as gymnastics, dancing or archery.

Removing risk entirely would remove the very essence of the sport itself, and I don’t think that that is something that anyone wants.

Ever felt like you’re going nowhere, and you need a little help
I felt the same way in my life, that’s when your friends improve the hand you’re dealt
Now if we extend the situation
To a broad one instead of the self
How can we not extend a hand into the perilous waters of hell

Throw your arms around me
Before the waves all swallow me
I cannot breathe
Put your arms around me
I’ve come too far and the ocean’s deep
Where’s your empathy

Now I’m no expert but a cursory reading of the facts say you reap what you sow
And the expert colonises we begin, caused enough hurt to eat up the soul
And if we’re proud of the things we have, shouldn’t others want to share as well
Now the regimes that we propped up have descended into a living hell

Throw your arms around me
Before the waves all swallow me
I cannot breathe
Put your arms around me
I’ve come too far and the ocean’s deep
Show some empathy

It’s a risk just to exist
As we immerge in to the light
It’s a risk just to exist
I’m so glad to be alive

The talk shows talk
And nothing gets done
Who wants to be responsible for Europe’s biggest son
Show some responsibility
Show some responsibility

Throw your arms around me
Before the waves all swallow me
I cannot breathe
Put your arms around me
I’ve come too far and the ocean’s deep
Show some empathy
It’s a risk just to exist
As we immerge in to the light
It’s a risk just to exist
I’m so glad to be alive
Oh it’s a risk just to exist
As we immerge in to the light
Oh it’s a risk just to exist
I’m so glad to be alive

Risk To Exist by Maxïmo Park

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