SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - With their baggy pants and bandanas, snowboarders are among the coolest competitors at the Winter Olympics, whipping the spectators into a frenzy of excitement with their gravity-defying aerial tricks.
The daredevil stunts have made them compulsive viewing for a new generation of thrill seekers wanting to push the boundaries of the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger).
When everything goes right and they land safely, there are high-fives and fist-pumps all around as the crowds whoop and holler and yell for more.
But when it goes wrong, it can go badly wrong. Behind all the bravado and cockiness is the chilling realization that snowboarders risk life and limb every time they hurl themselves down the mountain.
On Wednesday, Shaun White, snowboarding’s biggest star, announced he was pulling out of the slopestyle, one of two events he had entered in Sochi, because he feared the course was too dangerous.
The previous day, White fell during training and hurt his wrist. The American said he pulled out to concentrate on the halfpipe, which he won at the two previous Olympics, but his withdrawal highlighted the real dangers of extreme winter sports.
On Monday, Norwegian Torstein Horgmo also fell in training and broke his collarbone, ruling him of the Games, though he could count himself among the lucky ones.
In 2009, Kevin Pearce, one of White’s great rivals, was critically injured when he slammed his head on the ice while training in Utah.
He spent six days in a coma and months recovering from his brain injuries but was lucky to live.
In January 2012, Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, a four-times gold medalist at the X-Games, died from injuries she suffered when she hit her head in a fall while training in Utah.
Less than two months later, another Canadian, Nik Zoricic, died from head injuries at a ski cross race in Switzerland.
No-one is exempt from injuries. Last month, White fell and hit his head in a warm-up competition, in the latest in a series of injuries he has sustained.
In 2004, White spent six months in rehabilitation after coming back too soon from knee surgery. In 2009, he chipped a bone in his ankle and missed most of the season.
Even with helmets, concussions are an increasingly common injury in snowboarding where competitors soar high into the air before attempting to land on a rock-hard, icy slope.
At the 2009 Winter X Games, America’s Gretchen Bleiler, a silver medalist at the 2006 Olympics, was concussed after smacking her head on the ice.
Last year, at a U.S. Olympic Committee summit in Utah, she spoke about the tiny margin of error that confronts elite snowboarders.
“It’s all about walking a fine line,” she said.
“You are pushing yourself everyday to make sure you are at the top but not going over the other side. It is a razor sharp edge.”
Bleiler was one of the favorites to win the women’s halfpipe in Vancouver but fell in both her runs and missed out of the medals.
The gold went to Australia’s Torah Bright, who flashed a big cheesy smile as the medal was draped around her neck, then revealed how she competed with a thumping headache from an early concussion.
Scotty Lago won a bronze medal in Vancouver in halfpipe. A few months earlier, he was concussed after a heavy fall in New Zealand, which went viral on Youtube.
“That is one of the most challenging things, walking the line between doing the tricks you know how to do and are safe and pushing yourself,” Lago said.
”Everyone can go put the work in the gym and go ride the mountain but you have to go out and do the stuff that is pushing the sport and stuff that is going to be next level and scary.
“It’s all about going out doing those tricks and pretty much surviving and living to ride another day. I feel if you’re not scaring yourself, you’re kind of not doing it right.”
Editing by Ed Osmond