In this photo taken Jan. 25, 2012 and released by ESPN Images, snomobiler Caleb Moore smiles while attending a news conference at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo. Moore was in critical condition on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in a Colorado hospital after a dramatic crash at the Winter X Games in Aspen, and a relative said the family wasn't hopeful about the 25-year-old's chances for survival.

Eric Lars Bakke, Associated Press - Ap

Death-defying? Not always

  • Article by: JOHN BRANCH
  • New York Times
  • February 2, 2013 - 8:28 PM


Millions watched on television last week as 25-year-old Caleb Moore attempted a back flip on his snowmobile during the Winter X Games, only to wind up in an ambulance after being knocked unconscious during a crash landing.

When he died Thursday morning in a Colorado hospital, the news came through simple and sad statements from his family and from ESPN, the network that created the ever-expanding X Games in 1995 as a showcase of action-packed sports.

Moore's death appears to be the first directly related to ESPN's high-flying carnivals. It immediately raised cultural questions about the lure of such events to young daredevils, the appeal to viewers and the responsibility of organizers.

A generation ago, such televised feats were the domain of such singular performers as Evel Knievel. But with the growth of the X Games and sponsors like Red Bull that have rushed into the death-defying stunt business, the pool of willing participants seems bottomless.

There are now six annual incarnations of the X Games, summer and winter versions broadcast around the world. With snowmobiles and skateboards, snowboards and motorcycles, the events -- many based on high-flying aerial stunts -- seem to invite disaster, with names like SuperPipe, Mega Ramp and Big Air.

The growing mainstream popularity has led some events, including the halfpipe and slopestyle contests in snowboarding and skiing, to be added to the Winter Olympics.

'Exciting' and 'stressful'

The recent four-day X Games, which ended Jan. 27, had at least six athletes sent to the hospital in ambulances, including Moore's brother, Colten; a freestyle skier with a broken back; and a snowboarder who flew off the edge of the halfpipe and into the crowd.

A few hours before sustaining the injury that would kill him, Caleb Moore sat in his family's trailer in Aspen, Colo., and described the first time he boarded a machine and performed a back flip. Living in Krum, Texas, he was 19 and on a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle. "It was the most exciting moment of my life," Moore said. "And the most stressful, heart-pounding moment of my life, too."

The risks are nothing new to so-called extreme athletes in action sports, but the lists of severe injuries and deaths only grows. The X Games this year featured tributes to freestyle skier Sarah Burke of Canada, one of the best in the world, who died last year after sustaining a brain injury in a crash during halfpipe training.

At the 2007 Summer X Games, the introduction of a Mega Ramp for skateboarders -- 62 feet tall and 293 feet long -- was debated after Jake Brown fell five stories and was knocked unconscious. The ramp, and Brown, returned in 2008.

In 2009, months after winning a gold medal at the X Games, Jeremy Lusk, a freestyle motocross star, died after crashing on a jump in Costa Rica and sustaining a head injury.

One of the announcers at this year's X Games was Kevin Pearce, whose Olympic hopes and snowboarding career ended three years ago when he sustained a brain injury during practice.

Snowmobiles especially dangerous

Among all the events, there might be nothing more frightening than snowmobiles -- jet-quick and nimble, but also weighing nearly 500 pounds.

"As a result of this accident, we will conduct a thorough review of this discipline and adopt any appropriate changes to future X Games," ESPN said in a statement after Moore's death. "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. Caleb was a four-time X Games medalist attempting a move he had landed several times previously."

The freestyle event that Moore participated in featured a series of ramps that launched snowmobilers 100 feet or more into the air. Contestants had 75 seconds to perform gravity-defying tricks to impress judges. Back flips are popular, with variations like letting go of the handlebars or trying to freeze momentarily with the snowmobile straight overhead.

Moore's back flip on one jump fell short. The skis on the front of his snowmobile pierced the top of the ramp, throwing Moore face-first into the snow. The snowmobile somersaulted down the ramp and bounced on top of him.

Moore was knocked unconscious. Surrounded by paramedics, his father and his brother, who was waiting nearby for his turn, Moore regained consciousness and walked gingerly to a medical tent. Feeling woozy, he was placed on a stretcher and put into an ambulance, diagnosed with a concussion.

Thirty minutes later, Colten Moore's first run ended in a crash on the same ramp. He over-rotated on a back flip, his snowmobile landing hard on its back edge. Moore was hurled off the back.

Half of participants sidelined

The weekend's snowmobiling events were especially perilous. The freestyle competition began with eight participants and ended with four. The winner, Levi LaVallee, had missed the previous two years with a broken pelvis and a broken leg sustained while rehearsing jumps.

Jackson Strong, an Australian motorcycle rider with medals from the Summer X Games, had spent only four hours on a snowmobile before competing in the Big Air event, ESPN said. On one of his crashes, the snowmobile's throttle stuck open, and the machine zoomed full speed toward spectators. It was slowed only by a fabric fence. One boy was injured but was treated and released.

Shortly before his accident, Caleb Moore listed the injuries he had sustained on ATVs and snowmobiles: a broken ankle, pelvis, back, tailbone, collarbone and wrist, and at least 10 concussions. Colten had a similar list.

There appeared to be no satiating the demand for their talent. After the X Games, Colten planned to rejoin the Nuclear Cowboyz tour, a series of dirt-bike and ATV events. Caleb detailed his intended itinerary: "On Tuesday, I fly home, and on Wednesday, I fly to France for a show on a quad. Then the next weekend, I have a show in Michigan on a sled, then a week off, then I have a month out of the country where I travel to Argentina, France, Russia, back to France, then back to the States."

Moore's plans went unfulfilled. His next run, on national television, would be his last.

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