In a strange way, the flying crash of a man named Vinko Bogataj is a perfect little sports moment. No, you probably don’t remember the name of Vinko Bogataj. But if you are old enough, these words will be enough to evoke his image in your mind: “And the agony of defeat.”
Right. Vinko Bogataj was the ski jumper featured every week on the “ABC Wide World Of Sports” opener. Jim McKay would say those famous words, “The thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat.” The images playing behind “the thrill of victory,” changed periodically. But the “agony of defeat” clip was always the same. It was always Vinko Bogataj, a Yugoslavian ski jumper, sliding down the ski jump and losing his balance as he approached takeoff. At that point, he kind of slid off the ski-jump, and he went tumbling and careening – arms this way, skis that way – until he crashed into the fencing below.
There were two things that made it perfect little moment: First, obviously, it was spectacular, fascinating, horrifying and frightening. You didn’t want to watch it, and you couldn’t turn away. It was utterly mesmerizing no matter how many times you saw it. Second – against all logic and odds -- Vinko Bogataj was not seriously hurt. He suffered only a mild concussion. He went on to ski jump again and afterward to live a good life. He is, by all accounts, still living a good life.
This, I think, is at the heart of what we desperately want from our sports.
We want to be taken to the very edge.
And we want no one to get hurt.
Sometimes, it works that way. And, as we all know too well, sometimes it doesn’t. Over the weekend, in Daytona, we saw it both ways. On Saturday, we saw a terrible and terrifying crash. We saw a car soaring and smashing against a fence. Car parts flew into the stands, injuring at least 28 people – two were listed in critical condition at first, though there are reports that their conditions were upgraded.
The crash was horrifying enough that, when it happened, it was hard not to wonder why we are drawn to this kind of dangerous sport. Safety officials and experts have made great strides and they always look for more ways to make the races safer for everyone. But they also know that they can never make it perfectly safe. They know that as long as enormous cars are going around at breakneck speed, there will be peril for the drivers, for their crews, for the fans – no fence, no helmet, no safety plan can predict all the possibilities or protect against any outcome.
Then came Sunday, and the Daytona 500, the Great American Race, and the final 15 or so laps were entirely gripping. Last year’s Cup champion Brad Keselowski – whose car already had smashed through a couple of dangerous spots – held the lead and was in the faster outside lane. Five-time Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson was on the inside lane and fading.
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There was a pack of cars, all pushing for the front, and in the pack was Danica Patrick, who earlier had become the first woman to lead a green-flag lap in a NASCAR race (she also became one of 13 drivers – man or woman -- to lead a lap at the Indy 500 AND the Daytona 500). In the scrum was Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose father was called The Intimidator and was famous for bulling his way through in moments like this, whose father died on this track almost exactly 12 years earlier.
The drivers were going absurdly fast, of course (nearly 200 mph). It’s difficult for spectators, especially those watching on TV, to get our heads around the speed and power and force and menace of these race cars. But there was no misunderstanding during those final few laps. Everyone was pushing the cars to the limit and beyond. Tires were worn. Nerves were clanking. Johnson made his move, edged closer to the front, then closer, then closer still, until he and Keselowski were side by side, each of them being pushed by anxious drivers who were just inches behind their rear bumper. It was hard to watch and breathe.
A caution flag came out, bringing a brief intermission. Then, it was on again, and Johnson was in the lead, he had the outside position, and the last six laps were even more deranged, with Earnhardt Jr. making his move, with drivers rushing past Patrick, with Johnson doing what he does about as well as any stock car driver who ever lived – holding everyone off. I don’t claim to understand the ins-and-outs of stock car racing, but there was nothing nuanced about those last laps. It was just pure anxiety – it was the ticking bomb under the table that Alfred Hitchcock would talk about when explaining tension. Everyone understood – one failed risk, one false move, one mistimed decision and the explosion would happen.
Only this time, the explosion didn’t happen. Jimmie Johnson held on for his second Daytona 500 victory. Dale Jr. finished second. Patrick finished a solid eighth even as she found herself besieged with challengers in the final lap. And though there were quite a few wrecks – including one that took out one of the pre-race favorites Tony Stewart – no one was hurt.
It’s a complicated thing that drives us as sports fans…the way danger draws and repels us. We wish it could always be like Vinko Bogataj crashing and getting up. But it can’t. Maybe the best way to explain it is through the eyes of Karl Wallenda, the legendary tightrope walker. He was asked why he so often performed without a net. After all, it was the same performance either way. In the end, Wallenda – at 73 – would die after falling from the tightrope with no net below.
Wallenda said that a net offers a false sense of security. He said that tightrope walkers have died using nets just as they have died without them. Wallenda was then asked, if it is so dangerous, why he continued to walk on wires. He said: “Being on the tightrope is living. Everything else is waiting.”Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.
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