09 February, 2011

Analyzing the mentality of the high-risk sportsman:

Another Kubica crash: this time on the Formula One circuit
PHOTO: Getty Images
Perhaps the greatest insanity of all is not to flirt with death, but to trundle through life assuming you can avoid death

Nobody who saw Rober Kubica's Skoda car wrapped around the metal railings on the racetrack which almost took his life this week, could have failed to be struck by the images of the accident which very nearly took the life of the Formula One driver.
Kubica reportedly lost seven litres of blood, which could have resulted in brain damage, was put into a coma and it is estimated that the fractures to his right leg will take a minimum of four months to heal. Even if the surgery on his right hand is completely successful, it is likely to take another eight months before he is able to work again. 
It all poses a question: why do these drivers do it? Why risk life and limb? Do they not understand the dangers? Or are they insane? 
Ayrton Senna:  probably the most famous racing car death
It is not as if the history of motor sport can be interpreted as anything other than a cautionary tale, pockmarked with injury, hardship and worse. Jim Clark, perhaps the greatest of all drivers, died in a Formula Two accident at Hockenheim in 1968. Ayrton Senna, another of Formula One’s great figures, died at the wheel at Imola in 1994. 
Henry Surtee: died in 2009 aged 18 in Formula Two race
PHOTO: Getty Images
Modern racing, while safer, also exposes drivers to terrible risks. In 2009, in the second session of qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix, Felipe Massa was struck on the helmet by a spring that had worked loose from another car on a high-speed part of the track, but survived. Henry Surtees, son of John, was less fortunate. He died in the same year after being hit on the head by a wheel from the car of a competitor during a Formula Two race. 
Seen in this context, the whole enterprise of motor racing seems insane. But is it? Are those who engage in super-fast racing and other kinds of high-risk sport quite as crazy as they seem? Or are they, at least in some respects, saner than the rest of us? I say this because there is something distincitive about the mindset of those who engage in extreme sports.
They live on the edge and flirt with death, yet they often seem more fully alive than anyone else I have met. It is as if the proximity of death has given them a unique handle on life. As one mountaineer put it: “It is when I am climbing, risking everything, that I feel at one with myself.”  
"Only when we accept that life is terribly short do we also realise that life is terribly precious" 
- Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, would have understood the point. In his book Being and Time he observes that it is often those who have confronted their own mortality who are able to live life to the max. He was not suggesting that we all dance near the precipice of the nearest cliff or bungee jump from Beachy Head, but merely noting that it is only when we accept that life is terribly short that we are also inclined to realise that life is terribly precious.
It is not just an awareness of the finite nature of life that matters, of course, but an awareness of the finitude of anything at all. Margaret Thatcher was once asked why she worked so hard while living at No 10. “One day I will not be Prime Minister, and I will not like it,” she is quoted as saying. “I want to make the most of it while it lasts.” Thatcher understood, deep in her bones, that her defining role would not last for ever, and it drove her. 
"Carpe Diem"  -  Martina  Navratilova PHOTO: INPHO
Martin Navratilova made a similar point after winning Wimbledon:  “You only get one chance to do this, so I gave it everything,” she said. “The career of a tennis player is short and every second counts. You don’t waste time on the training court, because you can’t recapture it”.
It is no coincidence that this “carpe diem” mentality recurs again and again among high performers. It is those who see each moment as unique and unrepeatable, who recognise the finite nature of everything we do or can hope to do, who possess the urgency so often associated with success. Those who live as if life is unending are likely to lack that visceral motivation. When all moments are alike, why seize any of them?  
I would suggest that the modern infatuation with activities such as bungee jumping and sky diving can be seen, at least in part, within this context. They have little to do with adrenalin, as is often supposed, and far more to do with rediscovering an urgency that is often suffocated by the health and safety obsession of the modern world.
Live each day as if it were your last PHOTO: INPHO
It is all about ripping off the cotton wool, experiencing the fear of dying precisely so we can rediscover the gift of living.
Life:   Bluff, play steady or go ALL IN???
PHOTO: Getty Images
This perspective will be familiar not only to exponents of extreme sports but also those who have read some of the brilliant literature associated with it. The Beckoning Silence, Touching the Void, Facing Up: all, in their various ways, articulate the truth that there is something qualitatively different about a life lived in the shadow of death.
As Joe Simpson asks in Touching the Void, leaving the reader in no doubt about his answer to the question: “Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in?”
Of course, you do not have to dice with death to appreciate life — a couple of weeks reading Sartre or Husserl or Heiddeger will do much the same job — but it is a curious psychological fact that it often helps. How many times have we heard those who have survived a life-threatening disease talk about how the experience has transformed their perspective? How often have we heard them say it is the best thing that happened to them?
Perhaps the greatest insanity of all is not to flirt with death, but to trundle through life assuming that you can avoid it altogether.


  1. Wow! Great, great article!
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  2. Thanks very much for the positive feedback Aisha.
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  4. Fair enough. I have to confess that I wasn't particularly interested in the fashion photos! ;-)

    Thanks again for your positive feedback Aisha.

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