Sarah Burke died last week.
Until last week, I didn’t know who Sarah Burke was. I didn’t know she was a six-time Winter X Games champion. I didn’t know she was favored to win a gold medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
I don’t know what a “halfpipe” is. I do know, according to news reports, Burke died from injuries suffered while training at the Park City Mountain resort “halfpipe” in Utah. In addition, according to the same news report, snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury two years ago while training on the same “halfpipe.”
When I first heard of Sarah Burke’s death and similarity to Kevin Pearce’s accident, I decided to write about the ever-evolving need to develop and perform more and more dangerous moves in order to be considered the “best of the best.”
However, that is a topic for a later day.
Instead, thinking of Sarah Burke and her drive to be the best reminded me of Franz Klammer and the 1976 Winter Olympics. In my ‘A Stones Throw’ column from February 14th, 2006, I wrote:
“My favorite Olympic memory came during the 1976 Winter Olympics held in Innsbruck, Austria. At that time, Austrian Franz Klammer was regarded as the best downhill skier in the world.
Most fans, and even casual viewers, expected Klammer to win the gold medal for the “Downhill.” While the world expected him to win, Austria demanded that he win.
On the morning of the “Downhill” Austrian newspapers had front-page headlines heralding the accomplishments of Franz Klammer and the expectations for gold.
But they went a little further. In fact, a lot further. They said it was Klammer’s national duty to win the gold. He would disgrace himself and his country if he did not win.
On that day in 1976 for 1:45:73 Klammer hurtled down the icy hill at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. He was out of control. He barely missed the out of bounds fence. He barely made the turns. He was a disaster waiting to happen.
He wasn’t trying to win. He had to win. It was his national duty. He could not disgrace his country. Or himself.
And he didn’t.
He reached the bottom of the hill .33 seconds faster than anyone else. Franz Klammer won the gold”
I don’t think I took a breath during that 1:45.73 minute. I didn’t know if I was watching the best downhill ski run in history or the most tragic. Fortunately, the answer was that it was the best. Still, I wondered then how people, the media, and even a country, could put that kind of pressure on an athlete.
How do you justify threatening an athlete – albeit in 1976 an implied threat – if he fails to meet your expectations.
At least I think it was an implied threat. We will never know since Klammer, at risk of life and limb, skied the race of a lifetime. He did what was expected of him.
More importantly, he did what was demanded of him.
Not so last Sunday with Kyle Williams of the San Francisco 49er football team or with Baltimore Ravens field goal kicker Billy Cundiff. Instead of performing as expected during their respective NFL championship games, both failed at a crucial time. Both lost the game for their team.
Both cost their team the chance to be in the Super Bowl.
Both must pay the price of failure.
To some, this price is to be released from the team before next year. For others, this price is to be punished with injury – even death. Both players have received several death threats. Other members of their families have been threatened.
And – they deserve it.
After all if they had just done their jobs their teams would be in the Super Bowl.
While Cundiff’s field goal miss and Williams’ muffed and fumbled punts certainly played a role in their team losing, so did the dropped passes, the penalties, the missed tackles, and a hundred other failures and miscues. The difference is in the timing – not the failure. For instance, a dropped pass in the end zone immediately preceded the missed field goal.
Cundiff is a bum for missing the field goal? However, he wouldn’t have even had to try the field goal if the pass had not been dropped.
In the same game, Baltimore had two pass interceptions over-turned due to a penalty. If either of those penalties had not been called, New England would not have scored and there would have been no need for a game ending field goal.
Yet, only Billy Cundiff is getting death threats.
As for Kyle Williams – Were his two mistakes the only mistakes made during the game?
If you look at the statistics, there were 147 plays during the game. Each one had the chance to be an impact play – only a few were. Is the fact that San Francisco could only convert 1 of 13 third down opportunities not important? Maybe if they had converted a few of those third down opportunities, a muffed punt wouldn’t have been critical.
As for Williams, he did catch and return eight punts with an average return of 8.8 yards. The Indianapolis Colts would celebrate if they had a punt returner who could do that. Add to this, Williams’ two fumbles were two of four fumbles made by the 49ers. The other two (one by Kendall Hunter; the other by Delanie Walker) were recovered by other 49er players.
Four fumbles – two recoveries.
I wonder if it was the other way around. If Williams’ two fumbles had been recovered by 49ers while the Hunter and Walker fumbles were recovered by the New York Giants – Would Hunter and Walker be getting death threats?
Not a chance.
I am a die-hard sports fan, but it is time to put sports in the proper perspective. It is great to be a fan of a sport, of a team, or of an individual athlete. However, being a fan should be a positive way to enjoy and support sporting competition.
Threats have no place in sports – or anywhere else for that matter.
I feel sure many of the threats of death, dismemberment, and disgrace are simply fans releasing their frustrations. I am sure most of these threats are implied with no plan or expectation to carry them out.
Unfortunately, the key word is “most.”
I hope two things. First, I hope fans all over the world take a moment to reflect and to remember that sporting events are simply entertainment. I doubt a singer gets death threats if he/she misses a note while singing a favorite song. After all, those things happen.
An athlete should get the same understanding.
Second, I hope each and every one of the published death threats aimed towards Kyle Williams, Billy Cundiff, or any other person, is investigated and that legal action is taken immediately.
We cannot afford to have the “exception to the rule” act while we sit idly by. A threat is a threat and should be treated as such. There is no such thing as an “idle threat.”
– Mike Cooney