As Caleb Moore's X-Games death showed, this sport just isn't safe.
After the horrific crash that killed Caleb Moore on Jan. 24 at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado, ESPN vowed to conduct a full review of the snowmobile-freestyle event to determine how to make it safer. The network controls and operates the X Games and its satellite events worldwide, and so far it has been true to its word. The organizers of X Games Tignes, the second of six X Games competitions this year, announced Tuesday that they had canceled a snowmobile freestyle exhibition—which in practice means doing multiple backflips on a snowmobile across 30-foot jumps over the course of 75 seconds—because ESPN has not completed its investigation.
The decision is a commendable step by ESPN, but it's not yet enough. The Worldwide Leader in Sports, a network that is majority owned by The Walt Disney Co., should go further and permanently ban the snowmobile freestyle event and its sister event, snowmobile best trick (where you only do one jump but it has to be even bigger and more dangerous), from the X Games. Because unlike any other event—even ones like snowmobile racing or motorcycle freestyle competition in the Summer X Games—snowmobile flipping carries an inherent high risk of serious injury or death that cannot be fixed with a few tweaks to the rules.
The video above displays what snowmobile-freestyle competitors have to do to earn X-Games gold. Moore opened his run with a so-called Superflip, a backflip over a 70-foot jump where Moore hung from the snowmobile by his hands in mid-flip before pulling himself back onto the machine and landing. As jaw-dropping as the Superflip is, it's not enough to win gold by itself, so Moore went for the backflip-to-backflip combination—two flips over the 30-foot jumps in a span of 10 seconds. Moore landed the first flip perfectly but under-rotated the second, jamming the front of the snowmobile into the snow. He fell forward onto the ramp, and the snowmobile flipped into the air and landed on his chest.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Moore was diagnosed with a concussion, and the news stories that night focused on the eerie coincidence of Moore and his younger brother, Colten, crashing in the snowmobile freestyle competition 30 minutes apart (Colten Moore separated his pelvis in his crash). But Caleb Moore's injuries included a heart contusion, which led to a secondary complication involving his brain, and he died six days later.
Supporters of the snowmobile freestyle event argue that this was a freak accident and note that no one had died in a major competition until Moore. This was the first-ever death in any X-Games sport, and the men who participate in snowmobile freestyle and snowmobile best trick are fully aware of the risks. Moore himself was hailed by family, friends, and peers as a fearless risk-taker who pushed the limit of what was possible in snowmobile freestyle.
Some of that argument is valid. There are inherent risks in any competition that happens as part of the X Games. But doing tricks on a snowmobile carries heightened dangers, even when compared to other extreme sports. Any event that includes a large machine is going to be more dangerous than, say, snowboard halfpipe. On a snowboard, you can only be hurt by the ground, but when you're riding a 450-pound snowmobile, both the ground and the machine itself can seriously damage you. At the end of the crash video above, the ESPN announcers begin to discuss the Scylla-and-Charybdis moment Moore faced during his fateful jump.
He never really stood a chance on that one, because he either had to bail halfway and drop down on that landing [or crash the way he did].
Any sport where competitors could find themselves with that kind of choice—between a crash or a 30- to 40-foot fall to the hard snow below—should not be in the X Games. The best-trick event is arguably more dangerous, especially after Heath Frisby landed a front flip to win gold, the first such trick ever landed in competition. Frisby's breakthrough jump, which came on Jan. 29 as Moore was losing his battle to live, will undoubtedly encourage more people to try the front flip, a far more dangerous trick than the backflip because you begin your rotation by throwing yourself towards the ground with the snowmobile on top of you.
ESPN should also proactively review similar trick events in the Summer X Games that use motorcycles, which are less bulky than snowmobiles but still weigh 200-250 pounds. In February 2009, reigning motorcycle freestyle X Games champion Jeremy Lusk died after under-rotating a flip at an event in Costa Rica, the same error that led to Moore's death.
The X Games might go another 15 years without a death in competition even if ESPN allows the snowmobile events to continue. But ESPN is owned by Disney, supposedly one of the most family friendly brands of any company in the world. The corporation that brought you The Little Mermaid and operates The Magic Kingdom should not sanction nationally televised events as obviously dangerous as snowmobile freestyle and best trick. The collateral damage is not Moore, a competitor who entered the freestyle event with his eyes open, fully cognizant of the risks. It's the 15-year-old kid and his buddies in Maine or Washington who see Moore or Frisby win gold because of a crazy flip and think, "That's soooo cool! I want to do that." The X Games markets itself as hip, as a symbol for a new generation of thrill-seekers. One of the implicit goals of the competition is to attract young people to extreme sports. That's fine—except when it involves something as dangerous as snowmobile flipping . And there are enough popular events in the Winter X Games that pulling the snowmobile freestyle and best trick competitions will likely not significantly impact the overall X Games' bottom line.
The announcers who called the last trick of Caleb Moore's life noted that he had no choice between completing a doomed flip and plummeting to the ground. ESPN has a choice, and it should choose to sacrifice a small part of a profitable competition for the overall health and safety of the extreme-sports industry and its wannabe participants.