The Grim Realities of X-Games Danger May Be on the Edge of Turning Deadly

The fate of a 25-year-old snowmobiler may transform into an awakening in the world of extreme sports, where the X Games have proved a catalyst for the evolution of dangerous, Evil Knievel-style activity invented almost on the fly.

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Caleb Moore is a 25-year-old professional snowmobiler. He crashed Thursday night at ESPN's X Games in Aspen, Colorado, while attempting a backflip during his heat in the freestyle snowmobile competition. Despite initially getting up and walking away before going to the hospital, he's now in critical condition — and his family doesn't think he's going to make it. "Caleb is not doing good at all," Caleb's grandfather Charles Moore told The Denver Post. "The prognosis is not good at all. It's almost certain he's not going to make it."

Moore's fate may transform into a grim awakening in the world of extreme sports, where the X Games have proved a catalyst for the evolution of dangerous, Evil Knievel-style activity invented almost on the fly, with new terrains and new expectations leaving us with this — potentially the first death in the 20-year history of ESPN's competition, all because of a kid on a giant machine who knew exactly what he was getting into.

On Thursday night, Moore didn't have enough speed when he attempted his flip, so his snowmobile under-rotated and instead of bailing on the trick he stayed committed. The skis on the front of the vehicle dug into the snow, throwing Moore forward onto the snow. The snowmobile flipped and came down directly on top of him:

Moore was able to get up and walk away on his own, but he was rushed to the hospital when it was clear he had a concussion. He had no recollection of what happened. Doctors there found bleeding around his heart. He had emergency surgery on Friday, but his situation has been complicated by another setback. A family spokesperson said it had something to do with his brain.

But snowmobiling's top athletes know the risks they face every time they ride heavy machinery off a ramp, into the air, and back down onto a mountain. They know them all too well; indeed, they live for risk, and are willing to die for it. At last year's Winter X Games, Heath Frisby was lauded and applauded for nailing the first-ever front flip on a snowmobile. While teasing the trick to The New York Times, Frisby said something that seems rather chilling in retrospect (emphasis ours): "I haven't tried landing it outright yet — nope, too dangerous. If you're going to go out, you might as well go out like Evel Knievel on live television."

Usually the number of broken bones and the severity of an extreme athlete's injuries are worn simultaneously like a badge of honor and a warning for what could happen next. One of ESPN's 30 for 30 documentaries covered the more than 300 broken bones suffered by BMX legend Mat Hoffman. When that came out, Katie Baker wrote about the potential a death might occur live in front of ESPN's cameras for Deadspin:

And at some point, some macabre modern-day situation will take place in full view of ESPN's radical new 3-D cameras, and we'll see the tragedy of Icarus unfold right there in primetime. It's charming when Hoffman jokes, near the end of The Birth of Big Air, that he longs to someday grow wings. But it's also a little bit chilling.

Moore's accident raises some troubling questions about not just the inherently dangerous sport of freestyle snowmobiling but about extreme sports in general — and especially the X Games, which began as something of an ESPN sideshow and has become the showcase for a booming industry. Questions like: Is it a really good idea to try and twist turn a machine quite that heavy and powerful... as if it was a bicycle? Is there now such a thing as too extreme?

Snowmobiling has been a part of the Winter X Games since 1998, with the tricks evolving into a heavier version of how motocross riders twist and turn on their dirt bikes. Originally SnoCross was the only event for a snowmobile rider to participate in at the ESPN competition. But as time went on, the sport expanded to add similar events to their dirt-bike brothers: a freestyle competition where a rider does different tricks on a series of jumps, and a big-air competition where a rider makes one attempt to perform the biggest, most ridiculous trick he can possibly imagine. As events got more dangerous, the injuries became more severe.

The evolution of snowmobiling mirrors similar advances in more traditional Summer X Games sports, like skateboarding and BMX. Danny Way is the skateboarder responsible for popularising the "MegaRamp." In 2003, hype began to surround a video he filmed involving a mythical monstrosity of wood that was bigger than anyone had seen been before. Way's part in "The D.C. Video" is now the stuff of skateboarding legend:

The MegaRamp was added to the X Games as a skateboarding event — "Big Air" — for the first time in 2004, and as a BMX event in 2006. You might remember seeing this horrific highlight of Australian skateboarder Jake Brown, a multiple Big Air medalist, falling about 45 feet in 2007:

Brown miraculously survived, and was even able to check out of the hospital a few days later. But with falls like that becoming more frequent — skateboarding legend Bob Burnquist narrowly avoided injury in a similar spill on the X-Games Big Air ramp last year — one has to wonder how long it will be before another athlete turns the wrong way, or under-rotates, and then something truly terrible — the loss of a life — happens right there live and on television... instead of potentially happening in a Denver hospital a few days later.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.