Opinion: XC Racing is Safer Than Golf (sort of)

A team of Olympics doctors published injury statistics from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in the British Medical Journal on 13 December. The big headline is that BMX racing is officially the most dangerous Olympic sport, with 27% of competitors suffering an injury. It takes those honours just ahead of boxing (also on 27%) and BMX freestyle (22%). While the statistics do give an overview of the types of injuries sustained it is not fully broken down by sport and neither BMX nor MTB appear explicitly in the breakdown of specific injuries so we can only guess.Mountain biking sits in the lower third of the table, nestled between basketball and artistic swimming. Notably, more mainstream sports like football and golf had higher rates of injury. Although, artistic swimming had a much higher illness rate than mountain biking. Surprisingly, athletics is right up there on the injury stakes with the 6th highest rate.A technical course, but fewer injuriesWhat is most striking for mountain biking is the progression of the sport – it is arguably the Olympic sport with the most improved safety record. In Rio the injury rate among mountain bikers would have ranked it as one of the most dangerous sports in the games, at 24%. Yet, by learning from the event in Rio, this came down to just 7% injury rate in Tokyo – even with racing in the rain. What makes this statistic more important is that the course in Tokyo was far more technically challenging than in Rio, with some significant jumps and drops. This suggests that with good course design, safety is not a solid argument for dumbing down race courses. Of course, mountain biking is still some way behind road cycling in these statistics, which had an injury rate in Tokyo of just 2%. Although before any triumphant road cyclists start declaiming how much safer their sport is, it is worth remembering that the Olympics are raced on closed roads, which eliminates the very real danger of death by automobile that road cyclists face every day. This does make road cycling among the safest Olympic sports, alongside diving, rowing, marathon swimming and shooting. All of these sports had injury rates of 1-2%.BMX in contextTo put these injury statistic in context, 9% of all athletes competing in the Games suffered an injury, so BMX athletes have more than twice the injury risk of athletes from other sports. Within those injuries, BMX racing also has the highest risk of more serious injury (requiring more than one week away from training for recovery), although karate is not far behind. One popular myth that these statistics do bust is that freestyle riding is inherently dangerous. Surely the assumption would be that as soon as you start tricking jumps the danger levels shoot up. Yet despite all the impressive flipping, spinning and flairing on show, it still had a lower injury rate than the more established discipline of BMX racing. This suggest that it is the chaos of other riders that heightens the danger, not the complexity of the tricks.These reports are published after each Olympic games as a starting point to make the Games safer. It is worth saying that as a new sport, it would be expected that BMX freestyle has a more significant injury rate than an established sport as organisers learn the particularities of the discipline. Although the challenge is going to be how to make BMX freestyle safer, without comprising the sport’s integrity.

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