Friday, January 30, 2009

World Championship Risks & Rewards

What does it take to compete on the international stage in sport?

Years of preparation?
Top performance equipment?
Risking Life & Limb?

All of the above.

Today a pilot died while competing at the Paragliding World Championships in Valle de Bravo Mexico. This is a very sad event and an indication of what each pilot who competes at this level of paragliding competition must keep in the back of his/her mind.

While I like to tell my friends that XC paragliding is the activity I derive the most enjoyment and reward from, I understand the risks. My risk/reward assessment allows me to continue to fly with confidence and enthusiasm. I do have control of some of the factors: My currency, my familiarity with the area, wing characteristics & safety, the forecast weather. Those risks that I can't control, I minimize or avoid. But many risks are not visible or creep up stealthily.

Mark Hayman says it very well in a recent blog post from the worlds: (written days before the fatality)

"To put it bluntly, top competition pilots in general and particularly competition paraglider pilots are just not normal. Does anybody think that leaping from a hill into angry conditions with your safety assured by 7 kilos of marginally stable sail cloth which at any moment could decide to stop flying, is normal? Let’s face it, most Olympic Athletes or indeed most competitive sports people do not run a very significant risk of death or serious injury each time they participate in their chosen sport. The only things that spring to mind are some forms of motor sport and a few ‘extreme’ sports. In spite of recent advances in equipment and organisation I rarely do a competition where somebody doesn’t ’smack in’, often with quite serious consequences. The fact that we, as pilots, accept this means we are not in any way a ‘normal’ cross section of the population at large. In fact we are pretty weird as far as I can see.
So the point I’m making is that the very top guys in a sport where the risk of death or disablement are so high are unlikely to conform to social norms. If they’ve survived the day, they’re likely to drink, smoke or engage in other frowned upon behaviours. If they were unable to control these behaviours and were flying whilst unfit then Darwinian Forces would have removed them from the gene pool long before they’d amassed the thousands of hours flying necessary to be chosen for a National Team and compete in the World Championships."

Mark, in my opinion, does a reasonable job of describing the risks of Top-Level Paragliding XC competition.

Now, let's look at the reward side of the docket:

How many seven figure baseball, cricket, football, players risk life & limb to win? If they did risk it all, and for no money - just the thrill of the game, do you think the same guys would be doing it?

The group I 'hang' with, competitive XC pilots, risk all they are willing to (and more, that is often out of their control) for little or no money. We fly and compete for the thrill and experience and camaraderie. It's not just a hobby. It is the activity we do that somehow gives perspective to the rest of our lives.

So - Today we are one less. A fellow flier has flown his last flight. I hope that the thermals are fat and smooth in the after. I know why he flew and why he accepted the risks. I understand.


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