Extreme skiing, extreme risk? Think again.

The things we’re most afraid of are usually the least likely to kill us

Extreme skiing, extreme risk? Think again. Press

When 29-year-old Canadian skier Nik Zoricic was killed last Saturday coming off the final jump at a ski-cross race in Switzerland, the reaction was swift and predictable. Coming after the accidental death of Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke in Utah two months ago, outcries about an epidemic of fatalities in extreme sports were heard far and wide. The only people who were temperate in their reaction were Zoricic’s fellow skiers. One of them, Ashleigh McIvor, a gold medallist in ski cross at the Vancouver Olympics, emphasized the misguided alarm she saw in the general public by comparing competitive ski dangers to the perils of everyday life. “The fact is,” she said, “there are risks associated with our sport and practically everything I do in life. We’re probably just as safe doing our sport as we are driving down the highway.”

Are they really?

The question is less glib than it might seem. In 1999, American author Barry Glassner argued in his book, The Culture of Fear, that the things we’re most afraid of (crime, rare diseases, plane crashes) are usually the things least likely to kill us. For example, he writes about an especially common fear: “The average person’s probability of dying in an air crash is about 1 in 4 million, or roughly the same as winning the jackpot in a state lottery.” According to Glassner’s findings, if the U.S. government really cares about its citizens’ health, it should probably abandon its war on terror in favour of a greener Earth: the average person is far more likely to die in a car crash than in a terrorist attack.

It seems our immense fear of extreme skiing is much like our fear of plane crashes and terrorist attacks: largely unfounded. We’re afraid of the sky, when what’s below is far deadlier. Just as a person is much likelier to die in a car wreck than a plane crash (roughly 3,000 Canadians die in car accidents each year), he could just as easily die playing American football as he could participating in extreme skiing.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research in the United States, 325 players were killed during high-school and college-level football games—or from football-related injuries—between 1982 and 2008. Chances are that few parents stopped their kids from playing minor football as a result. Yet, just like extreme skiing, football was subjected to the same widespread public concern in its infancy. In the late 1800s, the chancellor of Georgia State University banned the game from the school after a student was killed on the field, and another was severely injured. Not only did Georgia State’s football team disband, but the city of Atlanta passed an ordinance prohibiting the game from being played at all. The sport was referred to, among some of its staunchest detractors, as “The Game of Manslaughter.” The following is an excerpt from an anti-football article in an American literary journal from the late 1800s: “It is expected that before the close of the season other young men will have sacrificed their lives on the gridiron, in a foolish following of a ‘sport’ that is based upon principles of pugilism rather than of athletics. Arms are being broken daily, legs are being wrenched, faces are disfigured, scalps are torn . . . ” Today, the United States, to put it mildly, is very much a football country. In much the same way, Canada will probably continue to be a ski-cross country.

But the question remains: why do we automatically, on a gut level, register some things to be immediately more dangerous than others? Why do we fear trick skiing more than football, or plane crashes more than car rides? Perhaps it’s because we assume that the scarier-looking activity must be more dangerous—it has to be, because it seems so self-evident. It’s much easier to imagine yourself plummeting to your end on a pair of trick skis than dying in the end zone.

In the end, then, the people with the most realistic handle on the riskiness of what Nik Zoricic was doing when he died are probably the people most affected by his death: his friends and family. As his father, Predrag Bebe Zoricic, who noted that he didn’t know how he was going to fill the hole left by his son’s passing, put it: “In a word, I would say there’s no regrets.” Nik, he added, died doing what he loved to do.