The “preventable” death of a Russian man "zorbing" inside a giant inflatable ball has forced the adventure sport’s New Zealand inventors to call for a global standard of safety.
ZORB Limited, the company conceived by Dwane van der Sluis and Andrew Akers to develop the activity worldwide via a franchise system, said it was distressed to read of the accident, which it claimed was committed by an illegal operator with whom ZORB has no association.
“The site, Dombai resort complex in Russia's North Caucasus mountain range, was not licensed by ZORB. The equipment was not manufactured by ZORB. The lack of proper berms [barriers] to stop globes is absolutely prohibited by ZORB,” CEO Hope Horrocks said.
The horrifying incident is believed to have occurred last Thursday and was captured on video. Footage shows the transparent plastic ball veering dangerously off course before flying over a steep precipice.
“What’s going on there?” the man filming the video asks.
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“A catastrophe,” another responds as the footage cuts out.
The Emergencies Ministry said both men in the sphere were ejected as it bumbled down Mount Mussa-Achitara and landed near a frozen lake. One of the men inside, 27-year-old Denis Burakov, died from spinal injuries sustained in the fall. The other man is said to be in serious condition at a local hospital.
ZORB called the rocky and snowy conditions “very dangerous” and said it does not manufacture double-harness spheres like the one used because of the inherent risks.
“We’ve only seen the video, but it’s very clear they’re using a double-harness globe,” Horrocks said by phone from New Zealand, where it was early Thursday morning. “It’s very dangerous. If something goes wrong or there’s a puncture in the plastic, one person can fall upon the other.”
ZORB, which has operations in New Zealand and the U.S., has had problems with copycat companies over the past decade, particularly in Asia.
“We use a specialized TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) that can go down to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), but many of these other organizations use PVC (polyvinyl chloride), which tends to weaken when you get down to low temperatures.”
Horrocks said there is no quality control for the budding sport, and, because her brand is so strongly attached to the activity, incidents like this hurt people’s perceptions. It comes at a particularly bad time, because ZORB is expanding its operations into places like Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
The company has called on all operators to sign on to the activity’s Code of Safe Operation, listed on the website globeriding.org. The code, created by ZORB, offers a global standard of safety for anyone looking to set up a globe-riding site.
Russian authorities, meanwhile, have opened up a criminal case into the accident. The head of the national emergency rescue service demanded the government tighten its enforcement of safety rules for winter sports, citing a rash of accidents over the holiday period.
Zorbing, in particular, has become extremely popular in Russia. The translucent balls were even featured in the closing ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics as Vancouver passed the torch to Sochi.
At the time, Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the organizing committee, said "the transparency of zorbs reflect the open, accessible and inclusive society that Sochi 2014 Games is helping to build."