Skeletons In The Closet

February 20, 2010 at 5:19 pm 4 comments

Mastodon @ Winter OlympicsWelcome to my ongoing eccentric musings on the Winter Olympics.  Join me on the slippery slopes of logic, as I draw a parallel between vicarious danger and gratuitous violence, and argue that today’s luge and skeleton athletes are yesterday’s mastodon hunters. Plus, I  hereby publicly declare an end to my Criminal Minds obsession.

So, whoever named the sport of “skeleton” had a pretty wry sense of humour, yeah?

From what I can see, you jump on a sled almost as flimsy as a Krazy Karpet® (remember those?) and pitch yourself down a hard-as-concrete icy decline at speeds of more than 140 kpm (~100 mph), wearing nothing but a piece of micro-fibre and a helmet. And the only difference between skeleton and luge is whether the brutality your body will experience even if you don’t crash will be felt head first or feet first.   Really, it’s not if, it’s when.

Why, exactly, is this considered a sport? What athletic skill is required, beyond the ability to master your own fear, withstand the g-force and hold on for dear life? I believe some steering is involved–with the lean of a shoulder or flex of a calf. Even so, if this is the extent of the physical prowess demanded, then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it is the equipment and course designers who are in control and driving the athletes to achieve ever-higher speeds and endure ever-greater (crowd-pleasing) dangers.

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia is truly a tragedy. But beyond the obvious, it is a tragedy that is an outcome of a systemic flaw in the sport itself, and perhaps in all extreme sports. At a certain point, it’s no longer about athletics, it’s simply about how much pain the body and mind can take. The people driven to excel in such a sport have one set of motivations; the people who choose to watch another. At the root is the adrenalin rush that comes from putting oneself, or seeing others put themselves, in the path of potentially lethal danger.

For extreme athletes, the motivation to engage in such a sport is a desire to master, physically and mentally, a situation that could otherwise kill them. The greater the danger, the greater the emotional ‘high’–it’s a drug like any other. This is understandable to me. It has evolutionary roots: fight the mastodon, bring home the meat, ensure the survival of more offspring. Simple motivation, simple explanation.

What I don’t get is the observers. It’s counter-intuitive in so many ways. It also has something to do with catharsis, no doubt. Vicarious exhilaration and victory. Even, perhaps, downward social comparison: the positive affect (relief) that occurs upon seeing someone else in a situation worse than our own. Basically, a “there but for the grace of god go I” sort of response, but with slightly more sinister–or at least less empathetic–undertones.  As natural as this response is (here comes the Puritan in me), it also needs to be recognized as something over which we might do well to exert a little self-control.  For our better selves.

I have recently been questioning the voyeurism of personal misery that I indulge in by watching Criminal Minds, the NBC TV series.  Oh, sure,  I can claim academic interest in the behavioural science portrayed.  I can even acknowledge that the drivers of my interest are the eye-candy delights of Derek Morgan (Shemar Moore) and my geek-love for Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gray Gubler).  But also, there is a visceral response, located deep in the mastodon-hunting part of my brain, that gets pleasure from watching the forces of good confront and triumph over the extremes of human violence.

The problem is, the show’s producers–something like what I imagine the luge course designers did–have decided that upping the threat and indeed the gory display of violence will increase the vicarious thrill for the viewer.  I’ve got to go along with Mandy Patinkin who stated publicly after he departed the show in Season 2 that a love of the violence expressed by a small but vocal segment of fans was too much for him to take.

The impulse to stand up to and conquer danger, whether in the form of a hulking mastodon, a serial killer or a deathly fast luge run, is only human.  Succumbing to our baser instincts to enjoy the spectacle of watching someone deliberately put themselves in harm’s way for our mere entertainment, however, doesn’t seem to me to be one of our loftier states.  It is pretty rare for people to cold-bloodedly enjoy someone else’s pain (despite that, Criminal Minds has found five seasons of serial killers, well in excess of the true statistical incidence of the behaviour).  Empathy is as hardwired into the human brain as the thrill of the hunt.  But the slow and subtle intensification of the gratuitous violence, like the dangerousness of the luge course, is a slippery slope (pun intended).  We often don’t realize how far we’ve slid until we’re knee-deep in a gory mess.

One part of my brain thinks these sports–luge, skeleton, boxing–should be banned outright. They are filled with violence and the potential for injury or even death that does not warrant the funding they receive or the enjoyment they deliver.  They cater to the crudest, most primitive part of our nature as a species, and I think bring out the worst in us–certainly antithetical to the spirit of the Olympic Games.  Another part of my brain realizes, of course, that it is ridiculous to prohibit anything, and certainly not a sport, because that just drives the behaviour underground where it can’t be monitored, managed, subject to safety improvements, etc.

At the very least, I wonder if they shouldn’t have banned the remaining luge and skeleton events at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Not only for safety reasons (does anyone REALLY believe that course is safe?) but out of respect.   Because even if Nodar Kumaritashvili made a conscious choice to participate in such a sport knowing the dangers, and even if the thrill of doing so justified every run he took  (neither of which I believe is true), I guarantee you that his friends and family didn’t make that same same decision.  To me, “he died doing something he loved” just doesn’t feel like a good enough rationale for the ongoing inclusion of such a dangerous sport in the Olympics.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Julie  |  February 22, 2010 at 1:20 am

    Such well-articulated thoughts, Ms. Muse. And I think that while you’re right that banning certain sports (or television shows) isn’t possible, avoiding them certainly is. We can take the higher road by making the choice to NOT be one of the numbers boosting the ratings. At least not on skeleton night. But I am tuned in for ice dancing! 🙂

    Reply
  • 2. zennifer516  |  February 23, 2010 at 1:24 pm

    🙂 talk about two different ends of the pole!

    you know, now that I follow the logic of the mastodon-hunting origins of extreme sports participation, there should be selection out for that particular behaviour, given its dangers. Unless lugers and skeleton-ers (surely, not skeletons?) are more attractive to the opposite sex, in some way. This is possible–danger and the he-men/she-women who confront it–is a turn-on! Need I mention Shemar Moore again?

    Reply
  • 3. Annie  |  February 24, 2010 at 11:18 am

    I do understand the primal need for food and thereby the mastodon hunt. I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head around the initiation into manhood by stealing an eagle’s feather from the nest or hand to hand combat with a grizzly bear. I also don’t get the lure of bungee jumping or shear cliff climbing. “Let’s do it, just because it’s there?” Perhaps I was born with more common sense, some caution and developed a fear of heights.

    I did skateboard in my younger days. Ah, when they were new and fun and oh so exciting. I stopped when a friend did a face plant on asphalt. That wasn’t pretty and I let them make a mistake for me. I learned from it. I do admit to, not only watching, but enjoying Shaun White fly though the air in an aerial acrobatic display that had me spellbound. Is it extreme? Yes. Does he put his life and limbs at risk? Yes. Was it worth the watch. For me, a definite yes.

    I have opted out of watching the luge, skeleton and, after a crash, the bob sled races. I too believe those courses are much too fast and dangerous. Perhaps the designers of it should have given it a whirl themselves before putting young athletes at risk.

    It occurs to me that the Roman Empire’s “lions and christians” hasn’t gone out of style. Even with car racing, more people go to see a good accident than to see who’s the better driver. Quite a statement about being enlightened and evolving.

    Reply
  • 4. Eccentric Muse  |  February 25, 2010 at 3:40 pm

    Annie, I totally agree … the stuff Shaun White or any of the other snowboarders do requires a level of athletic skill that transcends the “thrill of a crash” that must be what motivates spectators of luge, bobsleigh, car racing. Although, I have to say, there’s something downright sexy about a fast car … why is that, I wonder??

    Reply

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