How to react to accidents like at the Ironman in Hamburg – DW – 06.06.2023

“I had to pass the scene of the accident twice,” wrote a participant in the Ironman European Championship in Hamburg in an Internet forum. “It was only at the finish line that I was told that the accident was fatal.” He assumed “the worst” during the race.

In a head-on collision between a TV escort motorcycle and an amateur triathlete on a racing bike, the motorcyclist died and the athlete was seriously injured. Since then, the main discussion has been about the lack of safety precautions: too narrow a course with oncoming traffic, too many motorcycles on the route.

Hardly anyone talks about the psychological consequences for the approximately 2000 participants, many of whom – like the participant mentioned – had to carry their bikes around the accident site. Not even in science. There are many studies on the victims of serious sports accidents, but “relatively little is known about the psychological situation of athletes who are not victims themselves but have seen the accident or injury,” admits Jens Kleinert, head of the psychological institute at the German Sport University in Cologne.

experience helps

Activists react very differently to such a moment of shock, Kleinert said in an interview with DW: “Some have the ability, despite the shock, to concentrate 100 percent on their own performance and to suppress this event from their consciousness. Experienced active participants often manage because they’ve learned to be incredibly focused.” Others don’t succeed. Thoughts of what she had seen haunted her as she ran. “That can lead to inattentiveness, in the worst case even to your own accidents.”

Therefore, from a sport psychological point of view, the scientist does not think much of informing the participants of the full extent of the accident during the competition. “It’s more of a hazard because the athletes may then be thinking more intensely about the accident and are therefore distracted. This can be very dangerous, especially at high speeds, for example on a racing bike.”

Rarely abandoned races

When the Italian professional cyclist Fabio Casartelli died in a fall on the king’s stage of the Tour de France in 1995, the day’s winner Richard Virenque was only informed after the finish line. The Frenchman burst into tears in front of the cameras. Here, too, the organizers – like now in Hamburg – allowed the event to continue.

Memorial to Fabio Casartelli, who died in an accident during the Tour de France
Memorial to Fabio Casartelli, who died in an accident during the Tour de FranceImage: picture-alliance/Augenklick/Roth

In the history of Formula 1, the premier motorsport class, there were five races that were stopped due to fatal accidents. However, four of them were restarted on race day. Only the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix ended completely after an accident involving German driver Rolf Stommelen. His racing car had overturned and landed in a grandstand. Five spectators were killed and Stommelen seriously injured. Should the organizers of the Ironman European Championship have stopped the race immediately after the serious accident that could be seen live via the internet stream and TV broadcast? Was her behavior in allowing the competition to continue irreverent?

Where do you draw the line?

“I wouldn’t expect anyone to decide the undecidable,” sports ethicist Yvonne Thorhauer, who teaches as a professor at the private “accadis Hochschule” in Bad Homburg near Frankfurt am Main, defends the organizers. “I find it really difficult to draw the line. When do you stop the race? When someone is in mortal danger and goes to the hospital? Or only when they die?”

The scientist has won two German championship titles in kickboxing and now also works as a referee, for example at world championships. She wonders how she would react in the event of a fatal accident, says Thorhauer: “I would stop everything on the battlefield and would no longer judge that day. I would be out. But I would not go to our association president and say: You have to stop the entire World Cup.” A world championship is a major event for which most athletes have prepared for a year. “If it were a small championship in Hesse or a tournament in Frankfurt, I would stop the competition immediately. However, such huge events as an Ironman are also of great importance for the athletes.”

show tact

The sports ethicist doesn’t believe in “locking everything up in rules. We completely train ourselves to lose our instincts when we create moral catalogues”. Thorhauer tells DW that a major event can be allowed to continue even after a bad accident like in Hamburg. “But of course you have to thoroughly work through what happened afterwards. It can’t be that the event is designed in such a way that the life of the athletes is in danger. The organizer is responsible for that.”

And it is also his job to convey the bad event appropriately. “If the Internet stream continues and the moderators say, ‘What a beautiful day in Hamburg!’, that doesn’t work at all,” says the scientist. “You can certainly do an award ceremony afterwards, but please do so discreetly. And you also mention the tragic accident.”

Also medium and long-term consequences

Possibly, such sensitivity on the part of the organizers would also help the athletes to process what they had experienced. “The same applies here: the personalities are very different,” says Jens Kleinert from the Cologne Sports University. “Some are better able to suppress it. Others reflect on themselves and the sporting risk in the days and weeks after the incident and think: That can happen to me too! Older athletes in particular, who may already have their own families, then ask themselves : Do I still want to take this risk?” Athletes can only be prepared to a limited extent for experiences like these. For example, by making them aware of the risks of their sport and developing techniques with them to deal with accident situations and keep their concentration high during competitions.

The psychological consequences for the amateur triathlete, who was seriously injured in the accident in Hamburg, are likely to be much more serious. “Something is always left behind, even if it’s just the memory of it. The worse the accident, the greater the effort that has to be made to cope with the event,” explains Professor Kleinert. “In my opinion, after serious accidents or injuries, sports psychological and sometimes even psychotherapeutic help must be offered. Five to ten percent of the victims of serious sports accidents show changes similar to depression because the body, which is so important, is perceived as vulnerable and sport is fundamentally questioned.”