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Avoiding Injury Is Most Difficult Stunt to Pull Off

As competitive bar is raised, so are the risks. One stunt bicyclist has had 15 operations.

August 16, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

So, you ask, are the tricks performed in those X Games this weekend really dangerous?

Mat "the Condor" Hoffman, a 31-year-old stunt bicyclist, has had 15 operations.

Hoffman ruptured his spleen in 1993 after riding up a 21-foot vertical ramp, clearing 23 feet of air, then crash-landing. He lost lots of blood, flat-lined at one point and spent a long time recovering.

So, yes, the tricks are dangerous.

That, in fact, is a large part of the lure of these "action sports," which have been around awhile -- and greatly appreciated by insiders, most of them teens -- but have just recently begun to get noticed by mainstream sports fans. The X Games, created and promoted by ESPN, are made-for-TV competitions in what many would consider off-beat sports -- skateboarding, bicycle motocross racing, motorcycle trick riding. The idea of the games is to broaden the appeal of extreme sports, thus building a bigger TV audience.

In the way these things develop, the extreme-sport stunts at this year's X Games are more daring and dangerous than ever before as the competitive bar goes higher and higher.

"Either you're going to hit the challenges in front of you or you're going to be taken out on a stretcher," said Hoffman, one of 300 athletes competing. "X Games is the premier contest and a lot of competitors use this stage just to throw down everything they have."

Motorcycle riders at the Coliseum throw themselves 50 feet into the air off a ramp, then do 360-degree flips that are as precarious as they are crowd-pleasing.

Skateboarders at Staples Center stay closer to the ground but face their own hazards as they board-slide down stair rails or grind on picnic tables and concrete ledges in a "skateboard park" competition.

Carey Hart, a "freestyle motocross" veteran whose signature trick is a mid-air handstand on the seat of his motorcycle, has broken nearly 50 bones, by his estimation.

At the 2001 X Games in Philadelphia, Hart fell 35 feet during a mid-air flip, breaking three ribs and his tailbone, and shattering his right foot.

"What we're doing is serious," Hart said. "Probably the most brutal sport out there is football and they'll get the occasional broken bone or they'll tear a ligament here or there. I have friends in wheelchairs. I have friends who have gotten killed."

Two years ago, very few riders could do a flip. Now, there are dozens who can pull it off.

There also is a stunt called "the nothing," during which a rider releases his hands and feet from his motorcycle in mid-flight, grasping the bike again before it lands. At least, that's the goal.

"Those guys can die up there," said Eddie Veliz, 17, a senior at Bell High who attended the X Games' opening festivities Thursday at Staples Center. "It's cool seeing them fly around up there. I wish I could do something like that."

ESPN officials say their X Games are safe. They say the truly horrific accidents happen at unsupervised venues during unsanctioned competitions.

Just the same, ESPN makes X Games athletes sign waiver forms, releasing the cable sports network from financial liability. ESPN also requires participants to provide proof of health insurance. ESPN said it provided supplementary health insurance for athletes but would not comment on its insurance policies for the X Games.

ESPN has 24 athletic trainers and four orthopedic specialists working at the X Games, which began Thursday and end Sunday.

"Does that mean there's the potential for injury? Yes," said Jack Wienert, executive director of the X Games. "That's the same for any sport. I'm assuming you could get hurt playing tennis. Our athletes know the risk, just like a football player knows he can go out and get hurt. What we've tried to do is make sure that doesn't happen."

According to Susan McGowan, X Games' director of sports medicine, there has never been an emergency ambulance transport in the previous eight X Games, but there have been plenty of injuries.

There have been concussions, broken ankles, separated shoulders and skin scrapes in abundance.

"It's very similar to football," said McGowan, who has attended all of the X Games. "In terms of severity of injury, it's not occurring. How many times do you see an ambulance flying off the field in football?"

Still, the possibility of serious injury has increased as athletes have become stronger, faster and more likely to push the envelope.

Freestyle motocross riders wear chest protectors, knee-high plastic boots and full-face helmets, but Hart did not compete for more than two months after his infamous spill. (He went to the hospital in a nonemergency transport 45 minutes after his fall, McGowan said.)

When he returned to competition, Hart broke his right ankle and both arms almost immediately. Last month, he broke his left ankle -- but here he is, competing in the X Games.

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