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Pursuit of risk grows for X Games thrill-seekers

Levi LaVallee goes airborne en route to winning

Levi LaVallee goes airborne en route to winning the golf medal in the Snowmobile Freestyle at Winter X Games Aspen 2013 at Buttermilk Mountain on in Aspen, Colo. (Jan. 24, 2013) Credit: Getty

There certainly is a "What did you expect?" reaction to Winter X Games daredevil Caleb Moore's death on Jan. 31. By any definition, attempting to execute a flying backflip aboard a 450-pound snowmobile is perilous business.

Moore, who was 25, was left with severe internal injuries after his failed trick brought the snowmobile tumbling down on him. On Tuesday, X Games officials canceled a snowmobile freestyle demonstration at the next stop in Tignes, France, in March as organizers review safety protocols in the wake of Moore's death.

While it was the first fatality during competition in the 18-year-old X Games, it hardly was the first terrifying crash by one of the event's audacious gladiators.

Past training accidents by X (for "Extreme") Games athletes have resulted in death, paralyzation, broken bones and traumatic brain injury. In January 2012, four-time X Games gold medalist Sarah Burke died nine days after crashing while training for the snowboarding halfpipe.

Shortly after Moore's accident last month, his 23-year-old brother, Colten, also missed completing a snowmobile backflip and suffered a separated pelvis, one of six X-Gamers who wound up in the hospital during the four-day January event.

Yet what appears inevitable, observers of high-risk behavior conclude, not only is a continued pursuit of dangerous human pyrotechnics but also an escalation in their degree of difficulty.

Temple University psychology professor Frank Farley, who years ago coined the term "T-Type Personality" -- T for thrill -- called risk-taking "an essential quality of our species."

"We don't want people to die," Farley said. "And, by the way, T-type Personalities don't want to die, either. But they want to take risks, on their terms, under their control, but going near the precipice."

Flipping snowmobiles, Farley acknowledged, is not for everyone. In fact, his first reaction to the Moore wipeout was, "Is going off a ski jump a snowmobile's natural habitat? My sense is maybe it isn't, and this is a wake-up call.

"But I define risk-taking as engaging in something with an uncertain outcome. We're always pushing to areas of uncertainty, where we can't control the variables. This trait has gotten us where we are today. Going to the moon. Talking on these tiny devices [cell phones] across the miles. We're always pushing the envelope. It's how we find new ways to do things."

Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University's Center for Study of Sport in Society, told ESPN's Outside the Lines that, while such deaths as Moore's are "always incredibly tragic," they are not new to sports, and that "we are sort of complicit, as a society, in the tragedy."

"We expect," Lebowitz said, "a lot of super-human effort and super-human performance from our athletes. The bar keeps getting raised and the envelope keeps getting pushed and, in some ways, it's a Pandora's Box. There's no going backwards."

Among the conclusions of a 1993 Journal of Consumer Behavior paper exploring T-Type endeavors by skydivers -- compiled by professors at Cal State-Long Beach and the Universities of South Carolina and Georgia -- were the "continuing participation in high-risk activities" and "a coinciding evolution . . . that leads to the normalization of risk."

So, while Farley identifies certain sports, such as baseball, as "fairly low on the risk scale," and sees certain people prone to confine themselves to non-physical challenges -- he considers the T-gene universal.

From the fearlessness of immigrants, pioneers, inventors and astronauts, it isn't such a giant leap to X-Gamers. When the on-the-edge competition debuted in 1995, among its competitors was a 20-year-old bungee jumper named Mark (Tiger) Baldwin of Pensacola, Fla., who would not identify himself as a "thrill-seeker," but nevertheless told Newsday his personality might be summed up by, "Let's see, what can I do to scare myself next?"

The growing popularity of the X Games -- particularly with the younger demographic -- only encourages the willingness for athletes to walk right up to the abyss before extricating themselves. It is a way to make a living, and widely admired.

Likely, Farley said, the more death-defying souls are a result of "some kind of biological cocktail -- hormonal things, dopamine, adrenaline -- and genetics. I got to know Robbie Kneivel, and there you probably had both genetics and the environment of being raised in Evel Knievel's family."

Robbie, like his father, made daredevilry his vocation, well aware of the formula his father described to Farley: That, of the people drawn to witness his frightening exploits, "about 60 percent came to see his skills and his performance, 30 percent came to see an accident and 10 percent came to see 'dead.' "

Does Farley buy that formula? "I do," he said. "Who knows more about all this than Evel Knievel? I'm just a professor."

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