Balancing safety with ‘thrills and spills’ of sport

nick blackwell_edited alonso crash_editedMarch 26: Boxer Nick Blackwell stopped by Chris Eubank Jnr.  March 20: Fernando Alonso walks away from the wreck of his car.

Why do you do it?

That’s a question posed to or asked of people who do things that they enjoy but carry a very real risk of injury, permanent disability or even death. The fact that they continue to do what they enjoy in the full knowledge of the dangers involved is, probably, the reason for that question.

Mountaineers climb mountains ‘because they are there’, racing drivers are motivated by speed and determination to be the best, boxers love the thrill of a fight, team players love their various contact sports – and so the list goes on and on.

Sky-diving, skiing, sailing and so many more all have their own risks.

In the last couple of weeks, we have seen two serious sporting incidents. In one, boxer Nick Blackwell, aged 25, was carried from the ring on a stretcher and placed in an induced coma as he had a brain bleed. In the other, double world motor racing champion Fernando Alonso, 34, walked away with just some fractured ribs from a horrifying accident in Australia. That was a testament to the great steps taken to protect drivers in Formula One. Alonso’s McLaren-Honda car was demolished but he was protected; a few years ago, an accident like that would have likely resulted in death.

On the playing fields, over the last year, the world has seen the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, aged 25, after he was hit on the back of his neck by a ball during a match in Sydney; and at least 11 high school American Football players died last year, either from head or neck injuries or heat-related illnesses.

Rugby players now face mandatory concussion assessment and lengthy treatment protocols before being allowed to play again. This was introduced after some were allowed to play on, risking even more serious injury, instead of being replaced immediately.

There is no doubt that sporting bodies are intent on improving the safety of the contestants but there is only so far they can go without ruining the spectacle of the event.

Boxing injuries have to be assessed minute by minute by the referee who only calls for a doctor if he thinks it is necessary. Should a doctor have the power to intervene without being called by the referee?

Safety equipment, such as cricketers’ helmets, is always being reviewed and improved. The only way to improve rugby safety is likely to be rule changes to minimize risk of injury.

Thinking back to my sporting days, I played club cricket without a helmet or forearm protection and played (field) hockey for a club as goalkeeper also without a helmet. Why no helmet? In those days they hadn’t made it into common use. In fact, cricket helmets were not developed until the late 1970s.

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