Overcoming Instinct to Win

Olympics downhill skiing-Olivier Morin AFP.jpg

The hearts and minds of Olympic athletes function differently than most people's. I try to imagine what would have made me willing give up my teenage years, or even my 20s, to put my body through painful workouts six or more hours a day, year after year, just for the chance of winning a single competition. Without even a major sponsor, most likely. I may say, lightly, that I "love" running, hiking, kayaking and scuba diving. But the love of a sport, and the desire to win--and win BIG--burns far brighter and more intensely in Olympic athletes than I can even really imagine.

So part of the fascination of the games is watching these alien creatures perform feats above and beyond what normal people would even attempt, and watching them triumph or fail in glorious or horrific technicolor. They are our avatars, playing out a battle among the gods for the inspiration and entertainment of the mortals watching from the sidelines.

But within that select group, there are those who comprise an even more rarefied and fascinating sub-set: those who take on sports that are dangerous as well as difficult. Nobody worried that Michael Phelps was going to kill himself while swimming the 100 meter freestyle. But no matter what the final ruling is on the safety of the luge track at the Vancouver Olympic games, last Friday's fatal accident there was hardly the first serious or even fatal accident in the sports that make up the Winter Olympics.

Nobody who grew up before the 1980s could forget the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World of Sports, with the ski jumper spinning and careening crazily off the side of the jump in the "agony of defeat." More recently, in the 2006 Turino Olympics, there were no fewer than 14 crashes in luge competition, with five significant injuries, including two head injuries that required hospitalization. And that pales next to the number of the top alpine ski racers who have struggled to come back from life-threatening crashes and injuries. Not all have made it.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's serious risk involved in sports that propel unprotected humans down unforgiving slopes and ice tubes at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. And the athletes know the risks as well as anyone. It's what they do with that knowledge that makes them different.

Recent research has explored a number of physiological factors that might explain why some people are drawn to sports like BASE jumping, cliff diving ... or luge, ski jumping, or downhill ski racing, while the rest of us are not. Those extreme athletes may have lower levels of something called monoamine oxidase B, meaning that it takes a bigger thrill ride for them to get the same rush most of us get in tamer situations. Or, their brains may release different levels of dopamine, making them more sensitive (in a good way) to thrills. Or they may possess higher levels of neuropeptide Y, which allows them be less afraid in high-risk situations.

But when it comes to Olympic competitors, a significant factor is also the intensity with which they want to win. A goal that, at least on some level, they have to want more than they want to survive. Because in order to win in a risky sport when the difference between victory and defeat can be a few hundredths of a second, athletes have to suppress their natural self-preservation instincts and throw themselves, fearlessly and aggressively, onto a razor-thin and murky edge outside of control, but just this side of disaster.

Being fearless is a lot easier, of course, when you're young or haven't ever discovered where all that fearless aggression can land you. Which is why, despite all the fuss made over American Bode Miller's Bronze Medal and the unlikely Swiss champion, Didier Defago, in yesterday's men's downhill race, the most astounding accomplishment actually may have been the Silver Medal finish by Norwegian skier Aksel Lund Svindal. Because two years ago, Svindal fractured bones in his face and had to undergo abdominal surgery to make sure his internal organs were intact after his ski sliced through his backside in a horrific downhill crash.

Normally, after an outcome like that, the human brain registers a distinctly negative association with the events that caused it to prevent the event from happening again--a reaction we generally recognize as "fear." In most people, that's a good thing. Helps the species survive, and all that. But you can't feel fear and be an Olympic or World Cup Champion. Feel fear, and your muscles tense, your technique tightens, and you can't take the risks necessary for victory. So for athletes who've sustained serious injuries--and there are a quite a few, in the Winter Olympic sports--and still want to win, the battle to overcome that natural survival instinct becomes a lot harder.

Some, like Antoine Deneriaz, who won the Gold Medal in the men's downhill at the 2006 Olympic games in Turino, only to suffer a spectacular crash three weeks later, decide their instincts were right, after all. Deneriaz struggled to come back, but right after the race in which Svindal was so badly injured, Deneriaz announced his retirement. The New York Times quoted him as saying, "I'm no longer able to assemble all the ingredients. Not only am I not going fast, but I'm no longer having fun. The mornings, when I grab my downhill skis, had become days of worry and doubt."

Downhill racer Scott Macartney, who suffered such serious head injuries in a race accident two years ago that he had seizures on the slope before being airlifted to a hospital, struggled to get his old speed and form back, but didn't quite make the Olympic team this year. An article about Macartney in Outside magazine last fall quoted another skier, also struggling to come back from a violent crash and injury, as saying, "you watch the guys on that pitch and you can tell who's been injured. You can see it."

It's understandable. It's reasonable, even. The astounding exception, then, is the athlete who wants to win so badly that even if they have a visceral, hard-wired memory of disaster, they manage to push past it to reclaim their old form and win. Which is what's so remarkable about Svindal's Silver Medal finish. Beating Bode Miller was the easy part. Whatever threat Miller and the others posed, it had to be nothing compared to the challenge of beating back his own fears and heightened, primal instincts for survival in order to go screaming down that mountain at 73 mph--on the ragged edge, and fast enough to win.

Photo credit: Olivier Morin/AFP-Getty Images