Extreme sports pose a greater risk of danger than other sports, but many have attracted loyal followings of people who are thrilled by the adrenalin rush of risking life and limb.
The recreational sports scene in America was relatively placid until the mid-1980s. There were a few risky sports—skiing, skydiving, hang gliding, and mountain climbing—but most weekend jocks were content playing golf, jogging, cycling, and playing tennis. These were relatively safe activities that produced a typical assortment of injuries, aches and pains, but nothing really life threatening. (Not including, of course, the occasional thwack on the head with a wayward golf ball).
Bored and Bold
Enter a group of zany, bored athletes in and around Oxford University in England, who banded together to form the Dangerous Sports Club.
One of their first activities was bungee jumping from tall buildings and bridges. From there, it was a short step to jumping from those structures with a parachute, an extreme sport now known as "base jumping." At one ski race in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the club mounted baby grand pianos on skis and raced the weighty instruments down the slopes while the racers rode along, playing the keys. The club eventually burned out as the dangerous, creative sports became more...dangerous and left too many members with serious injuries.
Turning Everyday into Extreme
Today, extreme sports usually involve daredevil-like athletic feats combined with cool fashions, stylish, hi-tech gear and a die-young-leave-a-good-looking-corpse attitude.
Take golf, for example, which is typically characterized by its beautifully maintained greens and the occasional gopher dozing in the grass. Now picture a course where the slope rating is actually a "slope" rating, and where a gondola provides transportation between holes. In August 2000, Vernon, New Jersey played host to the UX Open—the inaugural Alternative Golf Championship. Golfers played on ungroomed mountain ski slopes, while mountain goats, rocky crevasses, and rapid rivers (giving new meaning to water hazards!) were also featured.
Inline skating also has its extreme side. Inline skaters can glide along in relative safety, making one smooth stroke after the other ("street cruising"). Or they can become aggressive and jump up on and slide down hand railings ("grinding"), fly from curved ramps ("catch big air"), do "power slides" (stopping like an ice skater), or hold onto car or bus bumpers ("skitching") trying to break the posted speed limit. Don't try skitching on your own—it is as illegal as it is dangerous.
What's the Attraction?
What's wrong with playing golf the old fashioned way? Proponents of extreme sports say that living and playing on the edge require athletes to cultivate inner strength, confidence, and discipline in do-or-die situations.
Psychologist Shawn Worthy, PhD, and his colleague, Brian Furgeson, who teaches rock climbing, once studied a group of novice alpine skiers and beginning rock climbers to see if people engaged in extreme sports are really hooked on adrenalin rushes.
"Actually, you are less in control if you're having an adrenalin rush," says Dr. Worthy, an assistant professor of human services at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. "People beginning an extreme sport will have a small adrenalin rush at first but as they become more proficient, we found they most enjoy using their skills to control their fears. They actually look forward to going home safely and returning later to do the sport again."
One of MTV's most popular offerings ever were the X Games. ("Extreme" takes too long to pronounce when a tenth of a second means life or death.)
Sky surfing—a person straps a snowboard to his feet, jumps out of an airplane, and surfs on air currents until a rapidly looming ground forces the yank of a parachute rip cord.
Ice climbing—a person scrambles up the equivalent of a 50-foot icicle.
Street luge—a cross between riding a beefed-up skateboard and the Olympic ice luge. Daredevil competitors lie on their backs and roar feet first down hilly streets at speeds up to 90 miles per hour.
Barefoot water-skiers thought their sport was extreme until somebody decided to add a ski jump which is approached, and cleared, at about 40 miles per hour. But that's a snail's pace compared to skate sailing. Ice skaters on frozen lakes in the northern US and Sweden pull a ten-foot-tall, clear plastic sail over their bodies and let the wind push them along at speeds up to 75 miles per hour. Some Swedes use one-foot-tall ice skates with a new sail that allegedly can reach 100 miles per hour.
Here to Stay
Extreme sports, while everchanging, are definitely here to stay. New technologies and competitive athletes will continue to push the boundaries of mainstream sporting events. Although some may dismiss extreme sport participants as simply bored daredevils, the sports frequently require a great deal of skill and physical conditioning. Perhaps in time, these sports will become mainstream events...although playing a baby grand while skiing down a mountain may not catch on.
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