It’s the Olympics! Aren’t we all feeling excited? Aren’t we all feeling inspired to get out there and take up a new sport? What about getting on your bike? Cycling is fast becoming Team GB’s goldmine. Judging by the amount of “mamils” pedalling their way around our otherwise green and pleasant land I maybe be a little late in asking this question (and they maybe a little late in their bid for medals in Tokyo 2020). But no matter, cycling’s safe isn’t it, so long as you’ve got your helmet on?
You only have to browse the headlines to be aware of the danger of cycling around our streets, but what about when it is part of cycling as a sport? Can you claim for injuries sustained as a result of racing? This is a hesitant “Yes”.
Crashes are not uncommon and can easily happen. Generally, there will be no grounds for a claim as the dangers will be seen as inherent to the sport and accepted by those participating. The amount of bodies trying to wiggle their way up steep inclines; wet and slippery conditions; lapses of concentration; punctures – all potential causes for crashes which will be considered accidents and par for the course.
So when is there potential to claim? Well, if you watched the road race in Rio you can’t have escaped the amount of criticism the route attracted. See here for an assessment after the event. Some of the crashes on the course were more serious than others but it can’t be ignored that the descent at the end of the race contributed to the majority of the crashes. The worse crash involved Annemiek van Vleuten (of the Netherlands). She sustained spinal injuries which thankfully seem to be less serious than at first thought. However, she does face the prospect that her professional cycling career may be over.
My assessment is hypothetical and I am not aware that any legal action is being contemplated, but there is scope to bring a claim against the organisers for designing a dangerous route. Our own Chris Boardman said that “I went down and had a look at the course and saw those edges….We knew it was way past being technical; it was dangerous…I looked at that road furniture and thought ‘nobody can crash here and just get up’”.
The route appears to have been designed and approved by the UCI, the world governing body of cycling. I would suggest that this organisation would be the first port of call as a potential defendant. I’m not saying it would be an easy challenge; opinion would likely be divided amongst the world top cycling experts. But the end of a professional sports person’s career is not something to be brushed under the carpet without a fight.
Let’s look at the velodrome cycling events. If you were following these events in Rio in the first week you may have seen the organisers making a temporary repair to the flooring using duct tape. This repair was necessary following a crash, one which I would consider to be an accident caused by the inherent danger of the sport. But what would have happened if a further crash was caused by, for example, the duct tape snagging a competitor’s tyre? Just as above, I would advise that there was potential for there to be a claim against the organisers for failing to stop the event until proper repair had been made. In fact, the majority of successful sporting personal injury claims are as a result of poorly maintained equipment and surfaces.
One other successful foundation for injuries sustained during sporting events would be those caused by malicious intent of other participants. For example, high tackles in football – studs up, no prospect of winning the ball. Sometimes a criminal action for assault is also appropriate. In cycling, such acts are rare (the 1979 coming of age film Breaking Away still haunts me) and I envisage such challenges are likely to relate to deliberate obstruction, clipping wheels and blocking a competitor in. If crashes and injuries were caused as a result of such acts, these could found a successful personal injury claim against the individual perpetrator.
And let’s not forget spectators. Cycling may not strike you as a particularly dangerous sport to watch in comparison to other sports (see for example rally racing). But take a look at this photograph taken in the Rio velodrome. The cyclist can be seem riding high on the vertical banner separating the spectators from the track. It was only the cyclist’s skill which prevented her from being taken into the spectator stand and causing injury. This was an unusual situation and one which the organisers would have a strong argument to say it was unforeseeable. I would question how safe it was to have spectators so close to the track but this is likely to be seen as the meddling of health and safety in the enjoyment of a sport for both participants and spectators.
Maximising safety within an inherently dangerous sport is always a fine balance. An advocate of more safety measures is always going to be seen as the bad guy. That is until an accident happens. And that’s when our phone starts to ring.