‘Wipeout’ — Another Reality-Show Death

USC grad suffered stroke after performing a stunt on ABC’s physically grueling series.


In the latest deadly reality show incident, a contestant died last week after suffering a stroke. He was injured while performing a stunt on ABC's physically grueling hit series "Wipeout," TheWrap has learned.

Tom Sparks, 33, a recent graduate of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, was rushed from the northern Los Angeles set of the show to a local hospital two weeks ago. Sparks later was transfered to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where doctors performed several brain surgeries.

But doctors ultimately decided there was too much brain damage, and he couldn't be saved, according an email sent to alumni by an Annenberg faculty member.

Sparks died Nov. 5.

The death highlights an emerging challenge for the increasingly dominant nonfiction TV business, which relies heavily on everyday individuals, often placed in difficult situations. Despite what the industry describes as rigorous vetting procedures, deeper physical and psychological issues are often hard to detect. 

Currently taping its third season, and loosely derived from several physically challenging Japanese game shows, “Wipeout” requires its contestants to negotiate myriad obstacle courses — such as jumping over hurdles while traversing a 40-foot-long treadmill — in an attempt to collect a cash prize.

Problems first arose when Sparks complained of knee pain on the first part of the obstacle course, and producers instructed him to stop his run, an individual close to the production told TheWrap. Medics noticed that he was experiencing shortness of breath, and he was taken to a local hospital for further examination.

Sparks and his wife, Kate, with whom he was competing on "Wipeout," had been married two months and had just returned from a European honeymoon.

“We offer our heartfelt condolences to the family,” a joint ABC/Endemol statement read. “This is a tragic loss and our thoughts are with them at this time.”

Members of Sparks’ immediate family weren’t available for comment. However, his father, Bill Sparks, has told friends and family that his son suffered from a pre-existing condition, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (APS), a disease that causes unnatural clotting of the blood.

According to the nonprofit APS Foundation's website, detection of the disease requires a specialized blood test that would not typically be conducted during a routine physical exam. As with virtually all shows involving physical competition, Endemol subjects contestants to an exam prior to their participation, the individual close to the production said.

Certainly, Sparks gave no prior indication of ill health. He wrote on his Facebook page that he had recently completed the Long Beach Marathon.

Graduating from USC in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in communications, he had served production roles for L.A.’s KROQ Radio and ABC’s "Jimmy Kimmel Live," before becoming a morning deejay on radio station KSKI in Sun Valley, Idaho. A regular contributor to the broadband video venture CalifornialifeHD.com, he returned to USC in 2007 and received his master's degree just last spring.

“Tom truly was one of the most positive people I’ve worked with in broadcasting,” said CaliforniaLifeHD producer Heather Dawson. “He started working for our show last summer after graduating from USC. He was a true talent and well liked by everyone.”

In announcing a Wednesday memorial service in Los Angeles for his son, Bill Sparks requested donations be sent to the APS Foundation of America in lieu of flowers.

Editors note: This story was amended to reflect that it is not clear that Tom Sparks suffered a stroke while performing the stunt.

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