Earlier this month, a Russian man collapsed dead while competing in the Sauna World Championships in Heinola, Finland. An elderly Vladimir Ladyzhenskiy was competing against defending champion Timo Kaukonen when officials had to intervene with the event and remove Ladyzhenskiy from the 110 C sauna room.
In July, female kickboxer Adrienne Simmons died as a result of injuries sustained while competing in the 2010 International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) World Classic. Simmons was knocked out from a left hook in the third round of her fight against fellow competitor Lindsay Scheer.
It seems almost alien when we are forced to acknowledge the mortality of athletes, but the reality is many of the world’s most popular sports are predicated upon the feat of enduring fits of pain while avoiding serious injury — in some cases simply avoiding death.
And in some cases the fatal risk is unavoidable; sports like bull riding or street luging indulge in daring audiences to look away from the spectacle. Sports like hockey, though, tend to throw a veil over the possibility of severe injury. That’s why, even though the sport itself is known as hardnosed and unapologetic, fans were left speechless when, in a 2008 game against the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers forward Richard Zednik left the ice nearly unconscious after having an artery in his neck slashed open by a teammate’s skate. The game was delayed until officials received word that Zednik was in stable condition. It took more than 20 minutes for the Zamboni to clean the blood off the surface of the ice.
Luckily for Zednik, there was a team of medical professionals mere feet away from the ice surface that could treat him and prepare him for the ambulance. In Simmons’ case, however, there were no paramedics on hand at the kickboxing event and the athlete was forced to wait approximately 30 minutes before being loaded onto a gurney and taken to the hospital for treatment.
Where the examples of Simmons and Zednik diverge is in the preparation; no one wants to succumb to serious, life threatening injuries but you simply cannot avoid them by being ignorant to the possibility.
The incident at the IKF World Classic is made all the more egregious due to the fact that Simmons was fighting in her third match of the weekend — the kind of turnaround many prizefighters would flat out refuse due to the cumulative damage the body is likely to take over such a short period of time. And although most major fight promoters have long done away with the multiple fight tournament format, it is far from being completely discarded. Aug. 13 of this month saw Strikeforce — one of the biggest MMA promoters in the world — host a single day tournament to determine the number one contender to Canadian female champion Sarah Kaufman.
Although the specific cause of death for sauna competitor Ladyzhenskiy likely differs significantly from Simmons, the ways in which both individuals came to their demise does not. Much like Simmons, Ladyzhenskiy collapsed in the final stages of competition. Even though it was only six minutes into the championship match, Ladyzhenskiy had already paid a hefty toll just to get there in the first place.
High risk sports are always just that: high risk. It’s not so much a side-effect of the main product but in a sense it is the main product. Many athletes make a living being able to overcome serious dangers in order to achieve some desired outcome. In the case of activities like bull riding, combat sports, big wave surfing or even tightrope walking, the feat simply is the ability to avoid succumbing to the serious dangers involved.
The difference between something like tightrope walking and prizefighting, however, is that in all cases the tightrope walker is aware the likely consequence of failure: death. The more promoters and event coordinators want to deny the possibility of fatal injuries, the more likely they are to occur.
In sporting events where athletes are expected to endure some level of physical harm in order to attain victory, it is important that officials avoid the pitfalls of being superstitious or borderline negligent. The more you actually acknowledge the possibility of a fatal injury, the less likely it is to happen.