Was Caleb Moore’s death preventable?

The death of 25-year-old freestyle snowmobile star Caleb Moore shocked participants and fans across the world. It marked the first death in the 18-year history of the X Games competitions. Will it be the last?

Moore came up short while attempting a backflip in the Snowmobile Freestyle finals. The skis of his sled hit the landing, sending him over the handlebars before the machine landed on top of him.

While he walked off the course, he was taken to Aspen Valley Hospital for a concussion. After doctors discovered bleeding around his heart, Moore underwent emergency cardiac surgery. According to a statement released by his family, “His cardiac injury has led to a secondary complication involving his brain.” He was declared brain dead Thursday morning.

SnowmobilingJason Blevins of The Denver Post asked competitors about the safety of the course. On ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Blevins noted, “I spoke with a number of snowmobilers, professional snowmobilers who were competing, and they profess that this was the safest they had ever seen. The slope angles, the landing angles, the ramps, the ramp positions were all perfect…I talked to a couple of guys who said that it couldn’t have been any safer and the accident was just a fluke.”

Maybe Moore’s crash was a fluke. In a statement released by the X Games creator and broadcaster, ESPN emphasized, “Caleb was a four-time X Games medalist, attempting a move he has landed several times previously.” Maybe it was also a fluke, though, that Caleb’s brother Colten Moore was also injured in that event’s finals. He suffered a separated pelvis.

In response to Moore’s tragic death, ESPN vowed to pursue safety in future events. “As a result of this accident, we will conduct a thorough review of this discipline and adopt any appropriate changes to future X Games. For 18 years, we have worked closely on safety issues with athletes, course designers and other experts. Still, when the world’s best compete at the highest level in any sport, risks remain.”

Despite the efforts to make the courses as safe as possible, Blevins pointed out the inherent problems the sport itself creates. “When you’re spinning upside down under a snowmobile and letting go of it, and flopping around, turning around backwards and landing, you are assuming more risk than just what was in the past just a simple jump.”

Skier performing a freestyle stuntThese acrobatic, death-defying stunts are largely responsible for the growing popularity of the X Games competitions. This year’s Winter X Games drew a record 35.4 million viewers in United States. ESPN has now expanded the competition to six cities worldwide this year.

As fans of these sports increase, so do the dangers of the tricks. Competitors in the skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling events perform stunts unheard of in the early years of these competitions. And while Moore’s might have been the first death in X Games history, it came just over one year after the death of freestyle skier Sarah Burke from a vertebral artery dissection.

During the debate on Outside the Lines, Dan Lebowitz, the Executive Director of Sport and Society at Northeastern University, stressed the critical problem. “The concept that athletes will continue to push the envelop, continue to challenge themselves, to continue to try to beat records, and to continue to be supreme beyond what anyone ever thought before, that’s not going away.”

I applaud ESPN and the athletes for any efforts to try to make the sports safer. But the competitors will keep raising the bar every year. Add in a 450-pound machine with tremendous horsepower, and the risk of serious injury increases exponentially. Caleb Moore’s death demonstrates that no matter how perfect the courses and skilled the competitors, serious injuries – and deaths – can occur.

I suppose I can accept adults understanding these risks and competing anyway. I do worry about young kids cheering for more dangerous stunts and emulating their idols. These sports will likely become even riskier, not safer. And I’m not sure that the athletes and their fans really care.

Do you have any ideas for how snowmobile competitions and other winter sports competitions can be made safer? Or do you think that this tragedy is an isolated event in a sport that doesn’t need to be changed? Share your thoughts below!

The Dr. David Geier ShowCaleb Moore and the injuries in extreme winter sports: That’s Gotta Hurt segment from Episode 76 of The Dr. David Geier Show.

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Note: A modified version of this post appears as my sports medicine column in the February 8, 2013 issue of The Post and Courier.

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