Half-Pipe Routine Highlights Dangers At Games

American Shaun White is pushing the half-pipe with a new trick — the double McTwist 1260. It's another example of how extreme — and dangerous — the winter games are becoming.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From Alpine skiing to extreme snowboarding now. The men's half-pipe finals are tonight. And here to talk about that competition is NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, hi.

TOM GOLDMAN: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: The favorite, Tom, in any half-pipe event would have to be American Shaun White. We know him from that flaming red hair and his unbelievable skills on the board. He is bringing a really wild, complex, dangerous trick with him, the double McTwist 1260. What is that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Something that I would never try. It's a maneuver, Melissa, borrowed from skate boarding and White calls it the hardest trick he's ever done, which is saying a lot because he does really hard tricks. Basically, he rotates a total of 1260 degrees on two different axes, vertical and then horizontal. So, essentially it's three and a half spins and a double flip in mid air, made possible by a taller half-pipe course. Two years ago, competition officials decided to raise the half-pipe walls from 18 to 22 feet. And this obviously allows for bigger jumps and more time in the air and allows for White and others to push the envelope and create more moves like this.

BLOCK: You know, Tom, there was a terrible accident leading up to the Olympics of an Olympic hopeful, Kevin Pearce, who was training on the half-pipe in Utah, sustained a brain injury. What's going on with Kevin Pearce?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. Well, you know, he is recovering, which is the good news. You know, considering that he had what doctors, you know, call the severe traumatic brain injury and he nearly lost his life. This is the dangerous side of things, Melissa, when you push things, when you raise the walls 18 to 22 feet. You know, Pearce went down, it was a horrible accident.

Shaun White, who we were just talking about, the king of half-pipe, he had a nasty crash during practice at the X Games. He slammed his face on the lip of the half-pipe while he was trying his new move. His head snapped back. The helmet went flying. He was lucky to walk away with just a huge scrape on his jaw. And there have been other injuries, too. The half-pipe coach for Canada was quoted recently about these and other injuries to top male half-pipe athletes. He said: They're dropping like flies.

BLOCK: You know, Tom, I saw the video of that Shaun White accident. It's terrifying. I mean, is there a backlash? Are you hearing people saying, stop increasing the height of these half-pipe walls? We've got to put some kind of limit here.

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah, you may be hearing it. We don't hear it here and you certainly don't hear it from the athletes. I mean, Shaun White, when he was asked about it, you know, he said: We fall, we get back up, we try again.

BLOCK: A lot of these questions, of course, Tom, also being raised because of that deadly accident on the luge track, right, before the game started where the Georgian athlete was killed.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And that has put all of this that we're talking about into extreme focus. You know, this Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius, Latin for swifter, higher, stronger, that's the phrase that's been glorified. But, of course, you know, these accidents and then the tragedy that you speak of has really, you know, brought home this push for faster and bigger.

Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal had an article about the course where this accident happened, where the luger died. And basically its investigation found out that, you know, this course was designed to maximize speed and to make sure that it pays off in the future. The Vancouver Bid Committee agreed to locate the track at Whistler where the Alpine events are.

There was another site recommended, but Whistler was considered more financially viable after the games. You know, the Vancouver organizing official said - was quoted as saying, in order to make this thing financially sustainable, we want it, the track, some place where people will pay top dollar to go whipping down this thing in both summer and winter. The problem with Whistler, the track could only be located in a very narrow valley, making the track steeper and the speeds more treacherous, the fastest in the world.

BLOCK: The German designer of that track, Tom, is quoted in that article saying he modeled a top speed on that track of 102 miles per hour.

GOLDMAN: Frightening. I mean, incredibly frightening. And even for sliders who, you know, continually push the envelope on speeds, many of them tragically including Nodar Kumaritashvili, the young man who died, reportedly expressed fear to his father before the games. But, you know, his father apparently told him, well, just, you know, try and slow yourself down and the young man said to his father: What? You're a former luger. Are you crazy? You don't do that.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Tom Goldman at the Olympics in Vancouver. Tom, thank you.

GOLDMAN: You bet, Melissa.

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