By Jessica Pinchbeck
It is an exciting time with the Winter Olympics in Sochi upon us – an event which is sure to offer spectacular and exciting displays of athletic ability and courage. The nation is keen to regain the feeling of London 2012 and with possibly our best chance of medals to date the excitement is building. For many the Winter Olympics offers added excitement and inspiration due to the high risk involved in its events. For those of us who take part in sport regularly it is inevitable that at some stage of our sporting life we will encounter injuries of some sort. The odd sprain and pulled muscle are common place for most sports people, but consider the injury risk of laying on a sled and reaching speeds of up to 85 miles an hour down an ice chute in events such as the Luge and the Skeleton, not to mention the feat of four bodies in a bobsled exceeding 90 miles an hour on a course full of tight twists and turns! The phenomenal heights obtained by aerial skiers, the thrill of downhill skiing and the most dangerous ski event of all the Super G all contribute to the excitement of these Games, but what draws the competitors to compete in these dangerous events?
The danger element of Winter sports is ever present and the risk of serious injury is a genuine possibility. These activities are classified as ‘high-risk’; with competitors having to ‘accept the possibility of severe injury or death as an inherent factor’ (Breivik, 1995, cited in Kajitna, 2004, p.25). The previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver 2010 was overshadowed before it had even begun by the tragic death of luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili who crashed during his final training run. In 2011 British Bobsled pair Fiona Harrison and Serita Shone also crashed on a training run, with Serita seriously injured after fracturing her lower back. Shone underwent extensive surgery but amazingly her determination and passion for the sport never faltered and following an incredible recovery she resumed competition and achieved a bronze medal in the British Bobsleigh Championships in 2013. Shone stated ‘Before the first run, I was quite tearful, not tears of worry or fear, but tears of joy that I was actually about to race in my first competition, the British Championships. It had brought me full circle after the accident.’ A truly inspiring story of commitment and bravery. So what is it about Serita and others like her that pushes them to continue to participate in such high-risk activities? Is there something in their personalities that drives them to seek out dangerous sports?
Does personality play a part?
Several studies have investigated the so-called big five personality characteristics (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness) in participants of high-risk sports (e.g. Kajitna et al., 2004; Watson and Pulford, 2004; Tok, 2011). Results show that individuals who participate in high risk sports score higher in extroversion, openness and agreeableness than other athletes and non-athletes, and lower in neuroticism and conscientiousness. Being emotionally stable (less neurotic) enables athletes to stay calm in dangerous situations and cope with the demands of stressful conditions. Being extroverted these individuals are more likely to seek excitement, be active and energetic, and often enjoy being the centre of attention. This may explain motives for participating in such high-risk activities.
The majority of studies report low conscientiousness to be linked to risk-taking however there is some contrasting evidence that shows elite high risk sports people to be extremely conscientiousness, demonstrated in them being hard working, trustworthy, responsible, and determined. This adds another layer to risk taking with researchers distinguishing between participants who employ ‘deliberate risk taking’ and those who adopt more ‘precautionary behaviours’ in high risk sports. Consider the bobsleigh driver who costs time by being too safe versus the driver who endangers teammates by taking excessive risk. Arguably a certain level of risk taking is necessary to achieve success in dangerous sports. These emerging levels of risk taking seek to explain participants of dangerous sports that are high in conscientiousness and take action within the sport to minimise the risk rather than seeking further risks.
It would appear that although research in this area is by no means conclusive certain patterns do emerge to suggest that those athletes competing in Sochi may share certain personality characteristics that have drawn them to the high risk activities of the Games. With health and safety a key feature in the 2014 Winter Olympics risk has certainly been taken into account and measures put in place to protect each and every participant. However what the organisers cannot account for is the level of risk each individual is prepared to take. Will the deliberate risk takers stand out from those who adopt more precautionary behaviour? Whoever succeeds, watching the games unfold and witnessing the contest will be an exciting and enthralling spectacle.
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Daily Mail (2013) ‘Serita Shone wins Bobsleigh Bronze’ Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/othersports/article-2290852/Serita-Shone-wins-Bobsleigh-bronze.html#ixzz2piwu6lDs (Accessed 6 January 2014)
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Kajtna, K., Tusak, M., Baric, R. and Burnik, S. (2004) ‘Personality in high risk sports athletes’. Kinesiology. Vol. 36. No. 1. P.24.
Oatman, M. (2013) ‘Hooked on speed: How Jazmine Fenlator feeds her ‘bobseld habit’ [online] Available at: http://www.motherjones.com/media/2013/12/jazmine-fenlator-winter-olympics-bobsled-pilot-lolo-jones?page=2 (Accessed 13 January 2014).
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